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The Victorian Obsession with 'Clean Air'

Hello darlings!

The Victorian era was a time of great technical development and absolutely disastrous medical advice.

This week, I'm focusing on the Victorian obsession with ventilation and the 'clean air' theory that some took to such extremes it led to self-destruction. You can find my Sources at the bottom of this post, and if you would like to know more you can also check out my Victorian research document here.

If you have just a passing knowledge of the Victorian era, you may have heard of the 'seaside cure'- to take an ailing patient to the seaside to cure them of all ills so they could then return home, safe and well. This, at its core, displays Victorian views towards a 'change of air' and gives way to a deeper cultural understanding of how beneficial fresh, clean air was.

Frustratingly, as with many historical medical treatments, one can see where these theories originated and were sometimes genuine treatments (even if the doctors didn't know the exact reason just yet). After all, having fresh air couldn't be a bad thing; it's the extremes wherein the damage is caused.

Medical Advice

In order to understand Victorian-era views on the matter, first you need a very basic cultural understanding and a brief overview of medical theories at the time.

During the Victorian era, death rates were high. This was due to a number of factors; I already mentioned poor medical advice, but there were also squalid living conditions, addiction, new (harmful) substances used in manufacturing processes and overwork. In 1841 the death rate was 30 in 1,000 people (1). For comparison, in 2021 the death rate was 10 in 1,000 people; a third of what it was almost 200 years ago (2).

Up until the 1860s, the 'miasma' theory of disease prevailed. This theory postulated that disease was cause by bad smells- no wonder, then, that fresh air became so crucial. It wasn't until Louis Pasteur proved germ theory and micro-organisms began being isolated that the narrative concerning diseases changed (3, p.20).

One can see the views towards fresh air and how deeply ingrained it was in Victorian culture through women's magazines like Godey's Lady's Book from 1862, a common periodical that would have been found in many people's homes at the time. On article, entitled Air and Ventilation, claims 'people who breathe bad air day after day are always in a low, nervous state' (4, p.331). It also stresses the fact that this is a classless issue, stating:

' matter whether it be in a gentlemen's house or a labourers house, if the foul air be not changed, disease will be certain to make its appearance: rich and poor, both suffer from neglect.' (4, p.331)

In a time when certain diseases were 'fashionable', this emphasises the fact that clean air was for everyone, especially if the rich didn't want to catch a disease associated with the lower classes.

Ruth Goodman, in her book 'How to be a Victorian', also explains how fresh air was considered a cure for constipation, in addition to laxatives and bathing the skin:

'The curative power of fresh air... was believed was believed to be a solution, flushing away any polluted air that may have hung around the body; air that may have formed the used and now tainted breath of you and others.' (3, p. 246)

Ventilation in Homes

Well-ventilated homes were crucial in the Victorian era, as still air and bad smells were viewed as precursors to disease. Therefore, it's no surprise that there were dedicated articles in women's magazines on how to properly air out the home.

The article I'm drawing from here is entitled The Ventilation of the House (5, p.200), and referenced a 'Mrs. A' and 'Mrs. B', figures from a previous article used as examples of poor housekeeping and good housekeeping. It suggests opening windows and doors after cooking and cleaning to let the air ‘blow through’.

*This article also mentions a Tobin ventilator- I've googled this, but can't find out what is is. If anyone knows, or knows someone who would, please let me know!

Furthermore, it introduces the conundrum of the living room; the gas lamps burn up the oxygen in the room, but you can't open the doors or windows or they'll let in a draught, so what's the solution?

‘What is desirable is that an opening through the wall of the room into the passage outside, at a height of seven feet from the floor, should be made. This could be concealed and protected by a picture, sloping in front, to direct the cold air upwards towards the ceiling.’

This article goes on to explain the ideas behind ventilating a room.

‘This reminds us that we ought to point out two cardinal principles of ventilation. The air in the upper part of a room should never be allowed to become too heated; or it will cause congestion and headache. And cold air should never enter a room from below so as to cause cold feet.’

It gives a particularly fascinating insight into the common person's views at the time and why ventilation was thought to be so important.

A particularly vivid description can be found in the Air and Ventilation article, painting an unfavourable picture of an unventilated space:

'...people who attend crowded meetings will have observed that the windows of the building soon became covered with vapor, which, after a time, runs down and large drops: besides this, a sickly, suffocating smell is perceived, produced by the watery vapor of the breath, the carbonic acid gas which comes off the lungs, and the perspiration constantly thrown off from every one's skin.' (4, p.331)

The Bedroom

I've included the bedroom as a separate sub-genre, as it was a hotly discussed topic when it came to fresh air because it was a room where you spent so much time. Windows were advised to be left open overnight to avoid a build-up of 'carbonic acid'- what we know now as carbon dioxide (3, p.8).

Referencing the previous article, The Ventilation of the House, it advises to do away with curtains (surrounding the bed, therefore enclosing the space) and nightcaps, unless there is a severe draught.

Children were not safe from this paranoia either. Goodman draws from published articles at the time saying that '...clutches of children would huddle at night on bare mattresses beneath permanently open windows with only their day clothes and each other to keep them warm.' (3, p.9). This may seem cruel nowadays, but as she writes: 'their parents were trying to do the right thing.' They genuinely believed that they might cause their children harm if they let them sleep in a stagnant room, preferring that over keeping their children warm at night.

Another small article from 'The Housewife' entitled Sleeping Under The Clothes (5, p.133) gives advice from Miss Nightingale- 'It is an important part, so to speak, of ventilation.' It warns against children inadvertently breathing stagnant air:

'There is reason to believe that not a few of the apparently unaccountable cases of scrofula among children proceed from the habit of sleeping with the head under the bed clothes, and so inhaling air already breathed.'

In addition to clean air, the skin was also thought to play a part in the body's ability to function so if the bedclothes were too heavy or the garments too tight to allow the skin to breathe then it would inevitably lead to infection.

However, from the same periodical, there is also this:

This is why I love 'The Housewife'; sometimes it takes the common narrative at the time and denunciates it so thoroughly. I have also found articles warning against cold bathing infants, which was a common practice at the time.

The Seaside Cure

"This is my last visit, Mrs. Sinclair. Your daughter is no longer a patient requiring a doctor's attention; all you have now to do is to take her to the seaside, where she may get as much ozone as possible. This, and judiciously satisfying the appetite which it will create, will very soon completely restore the strength of which her late serious illness has deprived her."

This is from an article from 'The Housewife' (5, p.189) from the resident medical adviser. This is a rather large article going into the details of where to go, what accommodation to find and how to sea-bathe sensibly, all told through a conversation between doctor and concerned mother of a patient.

Morris, in his fascinating article The Victorian ‘Change of Air’ as medical and social construction posits that this seaside cure was 'a precursor to the modern pleasure holiday' (6, p.2). The change of air is no longer just beneficial to health and in the prevention of disease, but also cures illness.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this 'seaside cure' did actually work. As Morris says:

'British physicians of the nineteenth century distinguished two classes of invalids: those who suffered from a clear physiological disease and those who suffered from a disease without a clear physiological cause: more of a nervous exhaustion.' (6, p.2)

It worked especially well with the latter, and it's clear why. The Victorian era, notorious for its industry, meant that many people were subject to overwork which weakened immune systems. This 'seaside cure' worked not so much because of the fresh air, but the respite from work it provided.

In 'The Housewife' article, the doctor advises for the father to join his recovering daughter: 'he must make arrangements to go away, else we shall have him breaking down.' (5). Victorian doctors were very aware of people burning the candle at both ends, whether willingly or unwillingly, and warned against it.

I do hope you enjoyed this blog post- I've been meaning to write it for ages but wanted to do more research first, but as I was writing it I kept finding more and more notes. I could have gone into so much more detail on many subjects, so if anything caught your eye just let me know and I can possibly go into more detail in a future blog post!

And finally, if you would like me to send you any of the articles mentioned please let me know, Godey's Lady's Book is available freely on the internet archive but I personally own 'The Housewife' book and would happily scan some pages.

Until next time,

Aisha x



3. 'How to be a Victorian' by Ruth Goodman

5. 'The Housewife', 1886

6. 'The Victorian ‘Change of Air’ as medical and social construction' by Richard E. Morris

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