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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
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Living and Dying in America

Difficult Births
Was This Baby Swaddled to Death?
Colonial Medicine
Pewter, & Poison

Lives Cut Short
Chapel Burials
Settling In

Lead is a poison with widespread, lasting toxic effects. It enters the body dissolved in water, milk, wine, vinegar, or acidic foods stored in leaden vessels. It can be breathed in as dust, or absorbed through the skin. The circulatory system deposits it in internal organs, where it remains for weeks. It damages the brain and nerves, the kidneys, and the intestines. In bone, lead accumulates and lasts for decades.

Exposure to lead was a fact of life in the 1600s.

English slipware mug
English slipware mug. Image courtesy of: Smithsonian Institution

All but the very poorest colonists ate and drank from lead-glazed earthen ware (coarseware, slipware, and tin-glazed earthenware), and used objects made of pewter, an alloy of tin and lead. The wealthy not only dined on pewter but also displayed it lavishly in their homes. Anyone who shouldered a musket touched lead while loading or casting muskets balls and shot.

Skeletal lead content reflects lifetime exposure. Lead levels in bone are expressed as parts per million (ppm) — micrograms of lead per gram of bone ash. Modern Americans usually have less than 20 ppm of lead in bone. Levels below 50 ppm do not cause symptoms of lead poisoning.

pewter mug
Pewter mug. Image courtesy of: Smithsonian Institution

For colonists, lead intake increased with wealth.

A very high lead content in 17th-century bone indicates a person of means. (Servants and slaves who used wooden utensils and plates were less exposed to lead.) Colonel Joseph Bridger, for example, was one of the ten wealthiest Virginians of his time. Between 1657 and his death in 1686, he held many prominent public offices and military commissions. He also probably suffered the effects of lead poisoning, especially the "dry gripes" of abdominal pain often mentioned in historic writings. When his remains were tested in 2007, his bone lead levels were 149 ppm — more than seven times the average level today.


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