When Steven Johnson decided to tell the story about How We got to Now in his book and accompanying series on PBS last fall, he chose six technologies he decided explained how life came to be the way it is these days including glass, cold, sound, time, light, and hygiene.
The idea that hygiene is a crucial technology that helped create modern life might seem odd, but cleanliness as it as evolved to the way we consider it today has been absolutely vital in creating modern society.
I remember one time as I helped my mother do our regular Saturday housecleaning routine (my job was to dust the legs of the dining room table and chairs, the buffet, and the kitchen table and chairs since I was the youngest, shortest, and therefore closest to the ground) I asked whether her house was as clean when she was growing up as ours was.
“Well,” she said after thinking about it for a moment, “Clean is relative.”
What she meant wasn’t entire clear to me at the time, but her “Clean is relative” comment stuck with me. Because what we consider a clean house today was certainly not at all what it meant a century and more ago. Back then, the thin ingrain carpeting of the time or strips of rag rugs sewn together to create room-sized carpets, were often padded with a layer of straw. It doesn’t take much imagination to envision the problems with cleanliness that would cause.
Especially in the era before electric vacuum cleaners had been developed (along with the easily available electricity needed to power them), carpet sweepers were the implements of choice to clean rugs and carpets in place, and while they’d sweep up surface dust and debris, ground-in dirt was simply beyond them.
My grandfather was always fascinated with technological innovations. He had one of the first gasoline-powered tractors in the neighborhood and one of the first big Atwater-Kent radio sets. After electrical service was extended to our farming community, he became a self-taught electrician, and also bought one of the first electric vacuums in the neighborhood. He was so enthusiastic about its cleaning power that he took it around to the neighbors’ to demonstrate how well it cleaned. At one neighborhood farm, however, about all he managed to do was convince the farmer his wife was shirking her housewifely duties.
This past year, we got another lesson in relative hygiene when the Ebola virus staged another outbreak in Africa, the most severe yet. The big difference this time is that the virus managed to jump the Atlantic Ocean and ended up here in the U.S., where two visitors from abroad died and a few other healthcare workers were stricken. But unlike Africa, where cultural traditions and lack of what we consider basic sanitary conditions encouraged the virus’s spread, Ebola was pretty much stopped in its tracks here, despite the hysteria encouraged by those who ought to have known better.
The time was, however, and not all that long ago, that the lack of good hygiene and ignorance of its effect on our lives proved deadly and not just embarrassing like the dust my grandfather extracted from neighbors’ carpets.
In particular, the ignorance of how disease spreads due to bad sanitation took a long time to penetrate the lives of most Americans. Diseases such as typhoid fever, spread through lack of knowledge of how human and animal waste can contaminate water supplies, took a frightful toll on lives. And wealth was no barrier when it came to catching this deadly disease. Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert, contracted typhoid fever and died while living Windsor Castle in December 1861. Just a month earlier, his cousins, King Pedro V and Prince Ferdinand of Portugal, had also died of typhoid.
We now know that typhoid is spread through consumption of food or water that has been contaminated by an infected person’s feces. Which is why a number of government regulations now mandate how far, say, a private water well must be from a home’s septic system.
Although we now have antibiotics to treat the disease, we also know that typhoid must be treated by keeping the victim hydrated and making sure caretakers are careful not to infect themselves. A century and a half ago, doctors were still unsure of the efficacy of sterilizing their hands, instruments, much less the impact of contaminated water supplies.
Here in Oswego, typhoid was a constant threat, often striking entire families and their neighbors. A good illustration is Lorenzo Rank’s report in the Oct. 6, 1881 Kendall County Record:
“The typhoid patients are all on the gain except Jennie Hubbard, whose case is said to be precarious; her mother, Mrs. C.E. Hubbard, is convalescent; Mr. and Mrs. H.G. Smith are improving slowly.”
Gradually, however, it became clear that towns that had central water supplies instead of relying on individual wells were healthier places to live, even though the exact reasons for that were still unclear. Oswego was finally able to establish its own municipal water system in 1895, using saloon licenses to pay for drilling the municipal well, laying the service pipes, and building the water tower. The system was inaugurated in July 1895, with Rank writing in the July 3 Record:
“The water works tower and tank are a grand success even should they prove a failure for what intended; the adornment they give to the place would be more than sufficient for what they have cost. They are visible from all directions being 112 feet tall from the sole of the foot to the top of the vanes, the loftiest thing that Oswego has.”
But while the new system was a marvel, folks continued to contract various waterborne diseases. In March 1906, the village board decided to replace the old 20×24 foot basswood tank, which had begun leaking, with a larger 18×30 foot steel tank. When the wooden tank was removed from atop the cast iron tower legs later that year, village officials were aghast at what they found. As Rank reported on July 11:
“We Oswegoans were all along congratulating ourselves for enjoying such excellent water: Water that was so pure and free of any taste or smells. We were happy in being blessed with such good and healthful water. When it came to the taking down of the old tank recently it was found there was a heap of dead and decaying sparrows in it; it caused some of us copious water drinkers to almost gag when we heard of it; the beer trade doubtless was considerably increased by it. Let the new water tank be made sparrow proof.”
That could have been one reason people kept contracting typhoid in Oswego. For instance, Rank reported on Oct. 31, 1900 that the entire Ellis Darby family was down with the disease. The other reason could have been the lack of a municipal sanitary sewer system, too, with outhouses being the primary method of dealing with sanitary waste. It wasn’t until the 1920s that Oswego voters decided to finance construction of a municipal sanitary waste disposal plant, after which the village had finally caught up with municipal water and sewer service enjoyed by Ancient Romans 2,000 years before.
These days, we take the disposal of sanitary waste, rules and regulations that protect both public and private water supplies, and other advances such as the elimination of horses from cities as the main power source for delivery vehicles, whose manure and carcasses (in 1912 alone, Chicago public works employees disposed of 10,000 dead horses from city streets) created nearly unimaginable pollution.
We take clean for granted these days, at home, in the food industry, and elsewhere—and for good reason. But all this cleanliness didn’t just happen. It came from hard-fought victories led by everything from women’s magazine articles to efforts on the part of organizations from the Farm Bureau to labor unions.