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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 46/January 1895/Schoolroom Ventilation as an Investment


THE biographer[1] Carlyle relates that the father of Frederick the Great scandalized the conventionalism of his day by removing all upholstery from the electoral mansion; an object-lesson in personal cleanliness no doubt so little appreciated by his contemporaries that, if the sturdy elector escaped the nickname of "crank," it was because the word had not then been invented, at least in Brandenburg. Even six generations later it may be doubted whether Friedrich Wilhelm's antipathy to germ-haunts has been realized outside a few modernly equipped infirmary wards. To the sanitarist, however, even such merely tentative application is a hopeful one, because he has learned to accept with equanimity the impossibility of any other than a gradual adoption of ideas greatly in advance of the average public sense, and to recognize the fact that even conservatism has its uses: the keel and the ballast which hold the ship to its course and, perchance, prevent a capsize—nay, sometimes even an anchor cast to windward—may be as necessary as the guiding rudder or the propelling sail. He has, therefore, no controversy with the slowness of the change-drift if mainly in the direction of better conformity with hygienic requirements; he even looks forward to a time when factories, dwellings, lecture rooms, stores, and every other kind of edifice, public and private, will be as well ventilated and be made as absolutely fire, vermin, and dust proof as the best hospital wards.

Public indifference to hygienic requirements was significantly illustrated lately in a busy manufacturing settlement in the State of Massachusetts. The city of L—— had erected and equipped a costly high-school edifice with a corps of highly paid instructors, to initiate in the more advanced branches of scholarship at the public charge pupils of whom only a minority could hope to utilize these expensive accomplishments in everyday life. All seems to have been regarded with complacency until the charge for an unusually complete ventilating apparatus was encountered. One would have thought that all pupils, whether or not able to solve a problem in differential calculus or to construe a line of Virgil, would have excellent use for their own bodies; but neither this consideration nor the almost infinitesimal magnitude of this particular outlay an outlay—which, including current expenses and interest on capital, was about half a cent per occupant daily,[2] in comparison with the strictly scholastic expenses—sufficed to reconcile the objectors to such unheard-of extravagance! Poverty of valid arguments was compensated by strength of epithets, and such expressions as "cranky" and "visionary" were freely applied to those who had thought it improper that rooms packed with adolescent humanity and seldom, alas! quite free from victims of contagious diseases, should be unprovided with at least a sufficiency of breathing air. The incident showed that even in cultured New England there was a minority—fortunately, a minority only—not yet emancipated from the mediæval fantasy[3] which contemned Nature, and which regarded the soul and the body as hostile entities, both indeed corrupt, but the latter only hopelessly so, and fit only to be "mortified" and suppressed. A strange infatuation, surely, to have held its ground for nineteen centuries, in face of the lesson left by the matchless educators of Hellas in the harmonious development of every faculty and every sense![4]

Communications received within a few months past from various boards of health and of education[5] have left no doubt in the mind of the writer that the incident at L—— is a typical, not an isolated one; for example, prior to March of this year there was not found in a single one of the public-school edifices of the great metropolitan city of New York a complete ventilating equipment, and by the 15th of that month there was but one such.[6]

Prof. Gilbert B. Morrison, in his book. The Ventilation and Warming of School Buildings, says that—

The invariable verdict of all investigators of public school ventilation may be epitomized as bad, had, bad! Some are better than others—or rather some are not so bad as others—but the difference is rather in degree than in kind.[7]

In a letter to the writer, so late as last February, the same author says:

I know of no building in America which is properly warmed and ventilated. . . . I fear it will be many years before the principle of proper ventilation will be put into practical application.

That the writer "speaks by the book" in his relation of the incident at L—— would be plain to any one who should care to read the printed report of the school committee of that city. The opponents of adequate ventilation might possibly have carried their point but for the weighty advocacy of the system ultimately adopted by one who is the acknowledged Nestor of the medical faculty of L——. Of Dr. P——'s pregnant address on the occasion of the dedication of the edifice, the space at our disposal permits but a few brief extracts:

The movement of which I have spoken has not been fully understood or appreciated by the public; but the time can not be far distant when all will recognize its merits; when even those who now deride will join in the general approval, and perhaps, as a means of obtaining popular favor, coolly assert that they themselves were chiefly instrumental in securing its triumph. In the fact that provision has been made for physical exercise we may see another proof that a change is taking place in our ideas concerning the proper scope of school training. Formerly such training was that of the mind alone, bodily conditions being to a large extent ignored. Now the doctrine is generally accepted that, for the purposes of education, the individual is to be regarded not as a dual personality—body and mind but as a unit; complex, indeed, but still a unit; and that the aim of the educator should be to produce a complete and healthy development of all parts.

In the system now adopted—

The amount of fresh air which can be supplied, if desired, is three thousand cubic feet, or more, per hour, for each occupant of the building. This, according to the estimate of very careful observers, is sufficient to keep the air of the rooms pure. By this device we become independent of the weather, and can make sure of our air supply under all the varying conditions of this changeable climate.

Under the old means of ventilation—doors windows, and suction shafts:

The ventilation heretofore has been imperfect, with a great prevalence of cold draughts, annoying and dangerous to teachers and pupils. Unreflecting people, however, will tell you that it was well enough, and all the expenditure that has been made to secure good ventilation in this schoolhouse is unnecessary—a mere waste of money. Those who make this assertion have no arguments based on facts to present for our consideration. They simply give us their opinion, generally accompanying the expression of it with a sneer, or an opprobrious epithet, like that of "crank," hurled at the advocates of free ventilation. Now, if so important a matter as this is to be settled by authority; if any man's ipise dixit is to be regarded as final, it should surely be that of a person who has some knowledge of the subject. I am of the opinion that the liberal supply of fresh air which has been provided for this building is necessary to the health of its occupants; and there is not a recent scientific investigator in this field, there is not a well-known writer upon hygiene, there is not an intelligent physician in the world who will not support me in this opinion. Then, what of the cost? Do you care for that, citizens of L——, if it is necessary for the health of your children? I am well assured that you do not. We, who spend our lives in effort to combat disease, can assure you that no other investment of money pays so well as that the income of which is good health; for, in securing this return, we secure with it, as a possibility at least, nearly everything which life can give of enjoyment or usefulness.[8]

The doctor then proceeded to give an itemized statement of the working cost of this new ventilating arrangement, and showed it to be about seven mills per occupant daily; but, inasmuch as his calculations were based on the previous attendance, and as the present year has witnessed a very notable increase of attendance, even to the extent of requiring utilization for schoolroom of portions of the library space, without increase of the total cost of ventilation, the expense may probably be safely stated as not exceeding half a cent for each occupant daily. Even this slight expenditure (not in excess but instead of that of previous expedients) may, in one sense, be regarded as no expenditure at all, in view of the fact that there is not an intelligent teacher but will testify to a manifest improvement in the result of her labors far in excess of the added cost.

The necessity of ample ventilation is therefore evident, even from the narrow merely scholastic standpoint; and we may be more sure that—as education comes to be recognized in the broader and more proper sense, which includes the full and plenary development of all the physical, mental, and moral faculties—that necessity will become more abundantly manifest.

  1. "Nothing could exceed his Majesty's simplicity of habitudes; but one loves especially in him his scrupulous attention to cleanliness of person and environment. He washed like a very Mussulman five times a day; loved cleanliness in all things to a superstitious extent, which trait is pleasant in the rugged man, and, indeed, of a piece with the rest of his character. He is gradually changing all his silk and other cloth room-furniture. In his hatred of dust he will not suffer a floor-carpet, even a stuffed chair, but insists on having all of wood, where the dust may be prosecuted to destruction. Wife and womankind, and those that take after them—let such have stuffing and sofas; he, for his part, sits on mere wooden chairs—sits and also thinks and acts, after the manner of a hyperborean Spartan, which he was."—History of Frederick the Second, called the Great, edition 1858, p. 320, by Thomas Carlyle.
  2. The Annual Report of the School Committee of L—— (p. 211) gives seven mills per capita daily, which the large present attendance reduces to about five mills.
  3. Of Asiatic origin.
  4. Considering her rude environments and ruder origin, Greece, of the sixth to the fourth centuries before Christ, still presents the most brilliant exemplification of human progress.
  5. With the exception of the United States Bureau of Education publication of the herein-quoted work of Prof. Morrison, the present writer has sought vainly for any Federal statistics bearing on the subject of this paper. Indeed, such would, of course, require a Government appropriation, and schoolroom ventilation does not appear to be a subject of interest in our national councils—either legislative or executive—perhaps because there is supposed to be no "political capital" in it.
  6. Based on a communication to the writer, March 15, 1894, from Dr. A. H. Doty, Chief Inspector of Contagious Diseases, New York Board of Health.
  7. The Ventilation and Warming of School Buildings. By Gilbert B. Morrison. Edited by the Hon. William T. Harris, A. M., LL. D., United States Commissioner of Education. P. 95.
  8. Dedicatory Address at Opening of the High School of the City of L——, p. 210.