Physicians wearing 17th century plague preventive costumes. Watercolor. Image courtesy of the Wellcome Collection.
Physicians wearing 17th century plague preventive costumes. Watercolor. Image courtesy of the Wellcome Collection.

Plague Histories

by Alice Rawsthorn

When Barcelona was stricken with plague in 1651, its citizens isolated themselves inside the city walls in the hope of preventing the deadly infection from spreading to the surrounding area. As none of them knew how long their quarantine would last, Barcelona’s rulers were anxious to ensure that food and other essential supplies could be brought into the city without requiring human contact. 

A solution was devised by the merchants in nearby towns who wanted to continue selling their wares in Barcelona without risking contagion. They designed wooden paddles with unusually large blades and positioned them outside the city gates. The merchants left their goods on the blades before retreating to a safe distance while barcelonins and barcelonina came to choose whatever they wished to buy and left money there to pay for their purchases.

To a contemporary eye, these socially distanced transactions look like mid-17th-century versions of the curbside drops and contactless payments that have proved so helpful during the Covid-19 crisis. Inspiring as the successful design interventions in the current emergency have been, they have precedents in the ingenious design strategies that have helped to protect us against plagues, epidemics, and pandemics throughout history, starting in the 17th century.

Until then, most attempts to ward off infection were rooted in superstition and religious beliefs. Throughout Europe, the same people who believed that evil spirits could be deterred by symbols and charms had placed their faith in posies of aromatic herbs and “plague sheets” emblazoned with religious motifs to save them from contagion. During the 1600s, people became increasingly aware of the likelihood of infection being transmitted from one person to another, culminating in the discoveries of scientists such as Robert Hooke in Britain and Antonie van Leeuwenhoek in the Netherlands. 

As a result, people sought practical ways of controlling infection by minimizing contact, such as Barcelona’s deftly designed paddles. Ever since, the underlying principle of design as a defense against contamination has been to identify and isolate anyone or anything that could be infectious. 

By the early 1600s, “plague doctors” were hired by diseased towns and cities in France, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands. They wore distinctive costumes, which were specifically designed to defend them against contagion, just like the personal protective equipment worn by front-line health workers today. Their bodies were covered by capacious gowns, leggings, gloves, and boots made from sturdy waxed canvas or leather. They carried long canes to be used if they needed to touch patients, and their heads were swathed in long hoods topped by wide-brimmed hats. The finishing touch was a huge face mask shaped like a bird’s beak, which was stuffed with the same herbs traditionally found in supposedly protective posies.

Religious imagery remained important too, but fulfilled functional objectives, as well as symbolic ones. When the Great Plague of London erupted in 1665, the doors of infected homes were marked with red or black crosses to warn people to avoid them. For the same reason, small lead crosses were nailed to plague victims’ coffins.  

The residents of one English village deployed design more extensively to curb the Great Plague. Like much of the country, Eyam in Derbyshire was free from the disease until the arrival of an infected bale of cloth from London in September 1665. A charismatic young rector, William Mompesson, persuaded all of the villagers to self-quarantine, starting on June 24, 1666, to prevent the plague from spreading elsewhere. 

Mompesson also installed boundary stones around Eyam to warn people not to enter the village. One of the biggest stones was designed to fulfill the same functions as Barcelona’s wooden paddles. Goods from local farms and traders were placed on it and exchanged for money. The coins were disinfected by being plunged into holes that were bored into the stone and filled with vinegar. By November 1666, some 260 people had died in Eyam, including Mompesson’s wife, Catherine, but the villagers’ collective courage ensured that their neighbors were spared the anguish of the Great Plague.

Alice Rawsthorn is a London-based writer on design whose latest book is Design as an Attitude published by JRP|Ringier. She is co-founder of the Design Emergency project which explores design’s response to the Covid-19 crisis.