Clock Tower

Out of the Clock Tower

Hello and welcome to the Greene County Archives' blog, "Out of the Clock Tower".  Please join us as we share information on archival issues, news, special events, and highlights from our collection.

Before the archives program began in Greene County in 1996, permanent records were stored in every conceivable space, in basements, garages, and closets. Usually they were in boxes of various shapes and sizes, although seldom adequately labeled, but occasionally they were just in loose piles of books and papers. Most notable were the old records stuffed into the clock tower of the County Courthouse, where they shared their home with pigeon droppings.

Now, there is a clean, environmentally controlled, well appointed location for the county archives, where our historical records are housed in standard sized boxes on steel shelves. We have taken note of their journey in the name for our blog.

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Sep 21

Diseases and Child Mortality in Early America

Posted on September 21, 2018 at 1:20 PM by Melissa Dalton

Life in the 19th and 20th centuries was not easy, but this was especially true for children. In the 1800s, up to 30% of children died before their first birthday, and 43% did not survive past their fifth birthday. If the child lived to ten, they still only had a 60% chance of surviving to adulthood. These are startling numbers, but when I look at our death records for the late 1800s / early 1900s, many of the children were dying of diseases that today, are treatable and preventable.

Just last week, I found a death record for an unnamed child of Harrison and Sarah Phillips, who died shortly after birth. This wasn’t that uncommon. On average, a women had six to nine children in her lifetime, with that number exceeding ten in many cases (Fig 1). With a mortality over 40%, there was a high probability that a child would die within their first year. Some children went unnamed (the sex of the child sometimes wasn’t reported), some were buried in unmarked graves, and some never had a traditional burial (Fig 2). One study I read claims that death occurred so soon, that the birth itself went unreported. This may seem strange to people today, but by not naming a child, the family could remain “unattached” until the child reached a certain age (usually their first birthday) (Fig 3).

Excerpt from The Xenia Gazette, dated August 13, 1900 (JPG)
Fig 1. Excerpt from The Xenia Gazette, dated August 13, 1900 (

Death record showing several unnamed children in 1883-1885 (JPG)
Death record of unnamed infant in 1878 (JPG)
Fig 2. Sampling of death records indicating unnamed children from 1878 - 1885 (Greene County Archives)

Excerpt from The Spirit of Democracy, dated March 10, 1852 (JPG)
Fig 3. Excerpt from The Spirit of Democracy, dated March 10, 1857 (

A small sampling of our death records illustrate the common causes of death among children - consumption (tuberculosis), croup, whooping cough, smallpox, measles, cholera, typhus, typhoid fever, diphtheria, influenza, and scarlet fever (Fig 4). One of these (if not multiple) is seen on every page. Cholera, typhoid fever, diphtheria, and scarlet fever outbreaks were high, killing many children (Figs 5 & 6). In the 20th century, scarlet fever was the leading cause of death in children, with a mortality rate of 20%. Reasons for the high mortality rate can be traced to several factors. First, nutrition was a problem. Many had access to a limit amount of food, and nutritional value was low in many cases. Second, the idea of cleanliness and hygiene practices weren’t introduced until the late 1800s. People didn’t wash their hands or bathe regularly. Waste was thrown into streets and rivers. Housing in urban areas was crowded and dirty. Third, people were unaware how certain diseases were spread.

Sampling of causes of death in 1877 (JPG)Sampling of causes of death in 1883 (JPG)
Fig 4. Causes of death from 1877 - 1879 and 1883 - 1885 (Greene County Archives)

Excerpt from True American, dated August 19, 1857 (JPG)
Fig 5. Excerpt from the True American, dated August 19, 1857 (

Excerpt from The Xenia Gazette, dated April 11, 1900 (JPG)
Fig 6. Excerpt from The Xenia Gazette, dated April 11, 1900 (

It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that things started to change. Governments and medical professionals began to understand the spread of disease and overall health. Hygiene was promoted. Sewer systems and sanitation services were installed. The improvement of the environment and living areas greatly reduced the mortality rate. Additionally, the advent of antibiotics, vaccinations, fluid replacement therapy, and blood transfusions aided in the decline, as well as an understanding of nutritional needs.

We do not have percentages for the death rate of children in Greene County during this time period, but it probably was similar to the national average. Today, we have a much better understanding of diseases and how to prevent them. Due to this, the worldwide infant mortality rate is down to 4.3%, with the rate decreasing to less than 1% in developed countries. Some of these diseases, as well as others not noted, have been all but eradicated, and rates of survival are extremely high when treated. However, many underdeveloped countries still experience high infant mortality rates, and for the same reasons discussed above. The World Health Organization, UNICEF, and the United Nations are working to reduce these numbers, and one day, hope to end all preventable deaths in children (and adults).

Until Next Time…

Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Greene County Archives
National Council of Biotechnology Information (NCBI)
World Health Organization (WHO)


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