Popular Science Monthly/Volume 18/March 1881/Physical Education III




MARCH, 1881.




"What is to the mind a healthy body,

To the body is a healthy house."

Fabio Colonna,

Next to our dietetic sins, the abuses connected with our habits of domestic life have contributed the largest share to the great sum of human misery. Yet few evils might be more easily avoided. There are diseases which may be considered as visitations of national iniquities whose consequences are almost beyond the control of individuals; but for the sufferings caused by scrofula and pulmonary disorders we are indebted chiefly to our own prejudices. Prejudice and ignorance have filled more consumptives' graves than poverty. Even in large manufacturing towns air is free. If our artisans could realize the consequences of breathing miasma, they would prefer the life-air of the wildest wilderness to the lung-poison of their slums; like a caged bird, the tenement prisoner would refuse to pair rather than people the earth with cachectic wretches. The exodus of their workmen would soon induce manufacturers to imitate the founder of Saltaire; building speculators would find it to their advantage to adopt the Philadelphia plan, adding suburb to suburb rather than loft to loft; cities would grow outward instead of upward. A reform of that sort would imply various modifications of our present labor system; but before the enlightenment of public opinion such difficulties vanish like mist before the rising sun. There was a time when it was actually proposed to abolish the summer vacations of the French town schools "in order to enlarge their curriculum in proportion to the advance of modern science"; but, since we have ascertained that out-door exercise is more important than all the graphics and ologies of the Académie Française, it has been found that, with a well-arranged plan of instruction ten months a year, five days a week and six hours a day are quite enough for any school. If the eight-hour system were generally adopted, operatives would not be compelled to live within ear-shot of the factory-whistle, and in very large cities the daily influx and reflux of a suburban multitude would enable railroad companies to carry individuals at rates which the poorest would call moderate. Far enough from the city center to evade the region of dear building-lots, and yet within easy reach of all kinds of door and sash factories and planing-mills, there would be no need of crowding three generations into a single room, and suffocating them with mingled kitchen-fumes and sick-bed odors. Three rooms and an out-house should be the minimum for a family with children.

In a tolerable location, the air of a three-room cottage can be kept pure enough without force ventilators or any other expensive contrivance. Open your windows; in very cold weather, air the bedrooms in daytime and the others at night. In larger houses, the kitchen, parlor, and dining-room should be thoroughly ventilated every night, also in daytime at convenient intervals, during the temporary absence of the occupants. To save foul air for the sake of its warmth is poor economy; experiments would show that the difference in fuel amounts only to a trifle, anyhow. Ten or twelve pounds of coal a day ought not to weigh against the direct gain in comfort and the prospective, unspeakable gain in health. Breathing the same air over and over again means to feed the organism on the excretions of our own lungs, on air surcharged with noxious gases and almost depleted of the life-sustaining principle. Azotized air affects the lungs as the substitution of excrements for nourishing food would affect our digestive organs: corruption sets in; pulmonary phthisis is, in fact, a process of putrefaction.

No ventilatory contrivance can compare with the simple plan of opening a window; in wet nights a "rain-shutter" (a blind with large, overlapping bars) will keep a room both airy and dry. In every bedroom, one of the upper windows should be kept open night and day, except in storms, accompanied with rain or with a degree of cold exceeding 10° Fahr. In warm summer nights open every window in the house and every door connecting the bedroom with the adjoining apartments. Create a thorough draught. Before we can hope to fight consumption with any chance of success, we have to get rid of the night-air superstition. Like the dread of cold water, raw fruit, etc., it is founded on that mistrust of our instincts which we owe to our anti-natural religion. It is probably the most prolific single cause of impaired health, even among the civilized nations of our enlightened age, though its absurdity rivals the grossest delusions of the witchcraft era. The subjection of holy reason to hearsays could hardly go further.

"Beware of the night-wind; be sure and close your windows after dark"! In other words, beware of God's free air; be sure and infect your lungs with the stagnant, azotized, and offensive atmosphere of your bedroom. In other words, beware of the rock spring; stick to sewerage. Is night-air injurious? Is there a single tenable pretext for such an idea? Since the day of creation that air has been breathed with impunity by millions of different animals—tender, delicate creatures, some of them—fawns, lambs, and young birds. The moist night-air of the tropical forests is breathed with impunity by our next relatives, the anthropoid apes—the same apes that soon perish with consumption in the close though generally well-warmed atmosphere of our northern menageries. Thousands of soldiers, hunters, and lumbermen sleep every night in tents and open sheds without the least injurious consequences; men in the last stage of consumption have recovered by adopting a semi-savage mode of life, and camping out-doors in all but the stormiest nights. Is it the draught you fear, or the contrast of temperature? Blacksmiths and railroad-conductors seem to thrive under such influences. Draught? Have you never seen boys skating in the teeth of a snow-storm at the rate of fifteen miles an hour? "They counteract the effect of the cold air by vigorous exercise." Is there no other way of keeping warm? Does the north wind damage the fine lady sitting motionless in her sleigh, or the pilot and helmsman of a storm-tossed vessel? It can not be the inclemency of the open air, for, even in sweltering summer nights, the sweet south wind, blessed by all creatures that draw the breath of life, brings no relief to the victim of aërophobia. There is no doubt that families who have freed themselves from the curse of that superstition can live out and out healthier in the heart of a great city than its slaves on the airiest highland of the southern Apennines.

In such countries as Italy and Mexico, where the plurality of the population pass the daylight hours in open air, unventilated bedrooms are almost the only cause of tubercular diseases; but in the north, where children have to be nursed like exotic birds, the chief defects of our domestic arrangements may be classed under three heads: impure air, want of sunshine, and want of room for exercise. The beau-idéal of a healthy house would be a well-plastered stone building on some eminence, remote from swamps and stagnant creeks, but surrounded by sunny slopes available for play-grounds; spring or well water; out-door cellar, kitchen in an out-house, or at least not directly below the sitting and sleeping rooms; high ceilings, wainscots, or wall-paper of innocuous colors; deep windows, with projecting mullions to admit the air and exclude the rain; an airy veranda, and no shade-trees on the east and west side, as sunlight is most needed in the mornings and evenings. Children can not thrive in dark back rooms, and in the first eight years of their lives should have all the exercise they want. The countrymen of Dr. Fröbel are ahead in this respect, and the best-arranged nursery I ever saw was the Findel-zimmer ("foundling-ward") in the convent of the Ursuline nuns near Würzburg, Germany. The landed estate of the convent having been sequestrated, their department of charitable institutions had been reorganized on a more economical basis, and the poor nuns thought it necessary to apologize for the ingenious simplicity of their Zimmer, whose plan had been suggested chiefly by the necessity of dispensing with hired help. The room was about forty feet square, facing south and west, with three large windows on each side. These windows and the fireplace were barred with net screens, soft to the touch, but securely fastened, and strong enough to stop anything from a football to a forty-pound baby. The floor was carpeted with rugs, covered with a sort of coarse sheeting to prevent dust. From the floor to the height of the window-sills the walls were padded all round with old blankets, secured with muffled nails, and stuffed with something that felt like moss or cow's hair. The only piece of furniture was a cushioned divan in the corner next to the fireplace; but the floor was covered with playthings and movable nondescripts, balls of all sizes, and a big Walze, a sort of wooden cylinder, muffled up with quilts and cotton. From the center of the ceiling depended a hand-swing, two rings just low enough to be within reach of a youngster standing on tiptoe, the original sitting swing having been removed as liable to be used as a catapult in a general row. Above the windows, out of reach of the boldest climber, were shelves with flower-pots, reseda, gillyflowers, and wintergreen. In this in-door Kindergarten, fourteen playmates—twelve babies, namely, and two puppies—had been turned loose, and seemed to celebrate existence as a perpetual circus-game. They could run races, pelt each other with cotton balls, swing in a circle, roll on the floor, and ride the Walze; but the attempt to hurt themselves would have baffled their combined ingenuity. There were no nurslings, of course, but all mischief-ages from three to eleven, wrestling and quarreling now and then, but, as the nuns solemnly averred, never crying except for causes that would make the puppies cry—a squeeze or an inadvertent kick—all disputes being referred to the umpire, a flaxen-haired girl of eight, who often took charge of the Zimmer from morning till night.

The squalling of new-born children can not be helped; puppies will whine, and young monkeys whimper for the first three or four days—it is the novelty of existence that bewilders them—but, if babies of two or three years scream violently for hours together, it generally means that there is something wrong about the management. Indian babies never cry; they are neither swaddled nor cradled, but crawl around freely, and sleep in the dry grass or on the fur-covered floor of the wigwam. Continual rocking would make the toughest sailor seasick. Tight swaddling is downright torture; it would try the patience of a Stoic to keep all his limbs in a constrained position for such a length of time; a young ape subjected to the same treatment would scream from morning till night. Forty per cent, of all children born in certain manufacturing districts of Belgium and Great Britain die before the end of the second year. They are swaddled, of course; they must not crawl around, and bother people; and "paregoric" does the rest: the child cries for liberty, and receives death. Opiates are sold under right pleasant names nowadays, and at popular prices in the larger cities; but a spoonful of arsenic would be a shorter and a kinder remedy.

Not every family has room and the means to construct a model nursery, but the poorest could spare a few square feet of space in some sunny corner, and, with old quilts and rugs, make it baby-proof enough for all probable emergencies. Then furnish a few playthings and trust the rest to nature. Man wants but little here below, and between meals a pickaninny will content itself with liberty, light and air, and a couple of rag-babies. As soon as a child begins to toddle, it should also have an opportunity to exercise its arms—a grapple-swing, or (if your ceiling be inviolate) a rope stretched from wall to wall. It is surprising how fast the clumsiest youngster begins to profit by such a chance. To the young son of man climbing comes natural enough to shock a witness of anti-Darwinian proclivities. The development of the shoulder-muscles also tends to invigorate the chest, and a fifty cent hand-swing may save many dollars' worth of cough-medicine.

The progressive development of the motory organs prompts their frequent exercise, and there is no doubt that the gratification of this instinct constitutes the chief element of that physical beatitude which makes the age of childhood the spring-time of every life; and it is equally certain that compulsive physical inactivity inflicts on a healthy child an amount of wretchedness which no prospective advantages can possibly repay. It is hard enough that so large a portion of the human race have to rear their young in a latitude which half the year confines them to the freedom of their four walls; but it is harder that even this limited freedom should be curtailed by so many unnecessary restraints. I wish every houseful of children had a rough-and-tumble room, some out-of-the-way place where the cadets could romp, roll, and jump to their hearts' content. It need not be a heated room nor even an in-door place, as long as it has anything like a roof to it; children are naturally hardy, as they are naturally truthful: effeminacy and hypocrisy are twin daughters of our pious civilization. A wood-shed will do, or a lumber-room with old mattresses and hiding places. Well-to-do parents might add some gymnastic apparatus, and for big boys a carpenter's table with an assortment of tools; mechanical dexterity may prove useful in many ways, and every normal boy has something of that instinct which phrenologists call constructiveness, and which makes the use of such implements a pleasure rather than a task. But, for the youngsters, the rough-and-tumble play is the main thing; it will strengthen their limbs, lungs, and livers, and prevent more ailments than all the pills in Herrick's list of patent medicines. Moreover, it will keep them quiet where other children are sure to be fidgety—in the parlor and at school. Every school-teacher knows that young ruralists are more sedate than city boys; out-door work has given them all the exercise they need; they can take it easy while their comrades are fretting under an irksome restraint. After an hour or two of German gymnastics, combined with wood-chopping and water-carrying, if you like, the wildest boy will prefer a chair to a flying trapeze; for, if the tonic development of the organism is not grossly neglected, sedentary employments per se are by no means contrary to nature; in the intervals of their play, the young of frolicsome animals will sit motionless for hours; even kittens and young monkeys; not to mention colts which have off-days, when they won't stir a foot if they can help it.

It would be a great improvement on our present system of school education, if children could learn the rudiments at home and pass their infancy, the first eight or ten years, at least, under the immediate supervision of their parents; a transition-period of three or four years of home studies would help them to steer clear of many moral and physiological cliffs. It is always the best preparatory school; only a private teacher has time and patience to interest a pupil in the dry principia of every science; but a still greater advantage is his independence of fixed methods and fixed hours. As a general rule, the forenoon is the best time for studies, and the airiest room in the house the best locality. Pure air has a wonderful effect on the clearness of our cerebral functions; the half-suffocating atmosphere of the average schoolroom is as stupefying as the influence of a half-intoxicating drink. Heat aggravates the offensiveness of foul air; but in a well ventilated room the degree of temperature is comparatively unimportant. As it would be inconvenient to load ourselves with blankets in daytime, less than 50° Fahr. would make sedentary occupations rather uncomfortable, and more than 80° would become oppressive in a close apartment; but between these extremes we may safely suit our convenience. Perfectly pure or perfumed air may be very warm and still very pleasant, as all know who have entered a conservatory or a tidy baker's shop on a cold winter day.

In large town schools, where hundreds of children have to breathe the same air, I would advise a change of rooms from hour to hour, and a thorough renovation of the vitiated atmosphere by opening every window and every door, and keeping up a rousing fire. The air-currents could be reënforced by mechanical means—canvas-floppers or revolving fans—and fumigation would greatly aid the good work. The South European druggists sell various kinds of frankincense that can be burned on a pan or a common stove, and will fill a large church with odors more or less Sabæan, according to price—ten cents' worth a day would be enough to beatify a whole town school; Mohammed, the man of God, included perfume among the three greatest blessings of human life. Young children ought to have a recess after every lesson, and should not be required to sit rigidly quiet. The best writing stand for children is Schreber's "telescope-desk," a box-like contrivance, with a movable top that can be lowered or raised to suit the convenience of sitting or standing writers. In a latitude where the weather so often precludes the possibility of out-door recreations, every schoolhouse should have a recess-room, and every town school an indoor gymnasium.

Fireside comforts are almost inseparable from the idea of an open fireplace, and from an hygienic standpoint, too, the old-fashioned chimney, or an open grate, is far superior to a closed stove. But it should not be forgotten that the operation of the chimney-draught alone is insufficient to correct the vitiated air of a small room, it merely creates an outward current. An open window completes the renovating process; in cold weather a few minutes are sufficient to revitalize the indoor atmosphere for a couple of hours. Only the blindest prejudice can deny the pleasant effect of such an influx of life-air; it revives the azotized lungs as a draught of cool water refreshes the parched palate. Colds are never taken in that way. The very name is a misleading misnomer—infection or influenza would be the right word. Long exposure to a freezing storm, in certain cases, induces a true pleuritic fever, a very rare affection, and entirely different from the only too familiar catarrh. What we call a cold (refroidissement, Erkältung) is caused by the. influence of impure air, or dust, on the sensitive tissue of our respiratory organs; subsequent exposure to the open air merely initiates the crisis of the disorder, the discharge of the accumulated mucus through the nose or throat. Fresh air is here only the proximate cause, as in toothache, or in those paroxysms of retching following upon the first respiration of a half-drowned person. If we postpone the crisis by persistently avoiding the open air, the unrespirable matter, instead of being discharged, will be deposited in the tissue of the lungs in the form of tubercles.

In the chapter on Diet I have stated the physiological objections to a late supper, and I will here mention an additional reason why the afternoon meal should be the last: It would give an overworked mother a chance to close the kitchen-door at six o'clock, and devote the rest of the evening to her family. Domestic habits depend greatly upon the employment of the long winter evenings that have to be passed indoors somewhere; whether at home or—elsewhere, depends upon home comforts rather than upon home-missions; a treatise on the art of making the chimney-corner attractive would be the most effective temperance lecture. Fredrika Bremer recommends fairy stories; in a North American city Scheherezade would probably avail herself of the circulating library, and a fascinating story-book is, indeed, an excellent substitute for the old-fashioned remedies against gadding. Good books, flowers, and music, combined with pleasant conversation and a cheerful fire, would neutralize the attractions of the average "saloon." Playthings and social games, too, would help to compensate the youngsters for the want of out-of-door sports, and where they have a room to themselves I would suggest the introduction of some entertaining pet, a raccoon or a tame squirrel-monkey. Let the boys have some fun—provide pastimes; it is ennui rather than natural perversity that leads our young men to the rum-shop.

The end of the day is the best time for a sponge-bath; a sponge and a coarse towel have often cured insomnia where diacodium failed. A bucketful of tepid water will do for ordinary purposes; daily cold shower-baths in winter-time are as preposterous as hot drinks in the dog-days. Russian baths and ice-water cures owe their repute to the same popular delusion that ascribes miraculous virtues to nauseating drugs—the mistrust of our natural instincts, culminating in the idea that all natural things must be injurious to man, and that the efficacy of a remedy depends on the degree of its repulsiveness. Ninety-nine boys in a hundred would rather take the bitterest medicine than a cold bath in mid-winter. If we leave children and animals to the guidance of their instincts they will become amphibious in the dog-days, and quench their thirst at the coldest spring without fear of injurious consequences; but in winter-time even wild beasts avoid immersion with an instinctive dread. A Canadian bear will make a wide circuit, or pick his way over the floes rather than swim a lake in cold weather. Baptist missionaries do not report many revivals before June. Warm springs, on the other hand, attract all the birds and beasts that stay with us in winter-time; the hot spas of Rockport, Arkansas, are visited nightly by raccoons and foxes in spite of all torchlight hunts; and Haxthausen tells us that in hard winters the thermæ of Paetigorsk, in the eastern Caucasus, attract deer and wild-hogs from the distant Terek Valley. I know the claims of the hydropathic school, and the arguments pro and con, but the main points of the controversy still hinge upon the issue between Nature's testimony and Dr. Priessnitz's.

Our beds are our night-clothes, and ought to be kept as clean as our shirts and coats. Woolen blankets are healthier than quilts; put a heavy United States army blanket over a kettle full of hot water and see how fast the steam makes its way through the weft; a quilt would stop it like an iron lid, and thus tends to check the exhalation of the human body. In order to disinfect a quilt you have first to loosen the pressed cotton; a woolen blanket can be steamed and dried in a couple of hours. For similar reasons a straw tick is better than a horsehair mattress, though a woven-wire mattress is perhaps preferable to both. Feather-beds are a recognized nuisance. Children over ten years should sleep alone, or at least under separate blankets, if the bedsteads do not reach around. If you would preserve your children from wasting diseases, do not stint them in their sleep; chlorotic girls, especially, and weakly babies need all the rest they can get. If they are drowsy in the morning, let them sleep; it will do them more good than stimulants and tonic sirups. For school-children in their teens, eight hours of quiet sleep is generally enough, but do not restrict them to fixed hours; in mid-summer there should be a siesta-corner in every house, a lounge or an old mattress in the coolest nook of the hall, or a hammock in the shade of the porch, where the little ones can pass the sleep-inviting afternoons. Nor is it necessary to send them to bed at the very time when all nature awakens from the torpid influence of the day-star; sleep in the atmosphere of a stifling bedroom would bring no rest and no pleasant dreams. But an hour after sunset there will be a change; the night-wind rises and the fainting land revives; cool air is a febrifuge and Nature's remedy for the dyspeptic influences of a sultry day. Open every window, and let your children share the luxury of the last evening hour; after breathing the fresh night-air for a while, they will sleep in peace.