One day, while searching for a small additional Father’s Day gift for Sweetums and a birthday gift for his soon-to-be 17-year-old son, I came across something perfectly weird and creepy: a plague doctor ornament. It was too perfect for 2020 and I thought they would make great mementos of this crazy time.
I ordered them from Horrornaments and Sweetums & Son loved them. I took a photo of one to post on Instagram and realized many people may not be aware of the significance of the exceptionally creepy masks worn by doctors in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Here’s a very brief history lesson:
The costume worn specifically by doctors who treated plague victims was developed in 1630 by a physician named Charles de L’Orme of Naples. The outfit was meant to protect doctors and, in some ways, keep the public at a distance to help prevent spread of the disease. According to doctorsreview.com, the costumes quickly became popular throughout Europe.
“Made of a canvas outer garment coated in wax, as well as waxed leather pants, gloves, boots and hat, the costume became downright scary from the neck up. A dark leather hood and mask were held onto the face with leather bands and gathered tightly at the neck so as to not let in any noxious, plague-causing miasmas that might poison the wearer. Eyeholes were cut into the leather and fitted with glass domes.”
The beak-shaped nose would be stuffed with herbs, straw, and spices as a way to protect the doctors from germs and any odors that accompanied sickness. The materials usually included juniper berry, roses, ambergris, mint, cloves, camphor, laudanum and myrrh.
Did it work?
The article on doctorsreview.com said, “Despite the fact that de l’Orme himself lived to the ripe old age of 96 — an impressive feat for a physician living in the plague years — his famous contribution to medicine probably did very little to quell the actual spread of the disease. The beak doctors, as they came to be know, dropped like flies or pretty much lived under constant quarantine, wandering the countryside and city streets like pariahs… until of course desperate families needed them.”