From the masks that hang from magnetic hooks on the inside of my front door to almost forgetting what it’s like to get on a plane or eat in a restaurant, the pandemic has changed so much of every part of my life this past year — maybe yours, too? Things are juuust starting to open up again here in Boston where I live, so now I’m curious about which changes will end up sticking around.
But then I read this article from Smithsonian Magazine and realized some of the things we don’t even think twice about now — water and sewage treatment systems; porches, balconies, and access to green spaces; even the Iditarod dog sled race (!!!) — started as responses to epidemics and pandemics like the one we’ve just been in. In other words, there are a ton of things in here that are juicy potential analogies and illustrations for your messages and content, so let’s dig in. (Warning for the squeamish: some of the facts of life of that last century are… gross… given what we know today!)
The story: How Epidemics of the Past Changed the Way Americans Lived
The article opens by setting some context on where we used to think disease came from, and how that in and of itself set patterns of behavior:
- Some of the biggest instigators of change were the repeated tuberculosis (TB) epidemics of the late 1800s and early 1900s. [Tuberculosis was also known as “consumption,” which is how seemingly boundless numbers of tragic heroines of literary classics died….]
- In fact, the TB epidemic of the late 19th century killed one in 7 people and was the third leading cause of death in the US [much like the pandemic is now].
- At the time, the idea of bacteria as the cause of disease was just starting to permeate the medical profession. For the general public, though, it was worse. Most people were still of the mind that disease came from “bad air” [which they called “miasmas”], and so didn’t associate the spread of disease with their own activities.
- As a result, there was a lot of, um, spitting. The article also mentions that it wasn’t unusual for people—even strangers!—to share drinking cups [ewwwwww….].
- A major public health campaign took aim at those two behaviors specifically, encourage people to use their own cups and to spit in “special spittoons, to be carefully cleaned on a regular basis.” The changes worked, which meant that not only did the disease slow its course, people’s behaviors started to change to the point where spitting was no longer considered acceptable behavior in “polite society.”
As the article notes, “Crisis sparks action and response.” [GREAT Truth Statement, by the way!] And many of those responses happened at the municipal levels. That turned out to be pretty necessary because life prior to those changes was a bit… unclean [this is where I again warn off those with weak stomachs!]:
- One thing about the past that you “know” about, but don’t really think about? The prevalence of horses. I’m reading the Spenser series of detective novels by Robert Parker right now. The ones I’ve read so far are all set in Boston in the 70s. Spenser, the mid-thirties-ish main character, recalls that even when he was growing up (so…40s?) both the milkman and the trash collectors still used horses to make their rounds.
- In the early 1900s, horses were, of course, the main mode of transportation. And those horses produced a lot of…. waste. Pounds of manure and a quart (!) of urine every day. People also produce waste, as you may know, and back in the early 1900s they, like the horses, would often dump said waste into the street.
- Those horses also died. But a horse, being a horse, is a rather large thing to have to move. So people didn’t. That is, they didn’t move the dead horses until they had decomposed enough to be movable. In the meantime, children played with them. [GAH.] In one year alone, 15,000 [thousand!] carcasses were “collected and removed” from New York City’s streets.
- That organized response to all the “filth” in the streets eventually expanded to garbage and waste collection, as well as improvements in municipal water systems. But it wasn’t until Thomas Crapper [OMG PERFECT NAME] invented a workable solution for indoor toilets in 1891 that things really started to improve, and indoor sanitation could become something accessible to more than just the very wealthy.
Some of the changes, though directly related to “miasma” beliefs about disease at the time, have surprising connections to what we do today.
- For instance, the focus on “bad air” as the main cause of disease started people looking for “good” air. That good air was believed to be free of the smells of other people, plants, and animals (both alive and dead), so people moved to where people—and in some cases, plants—weren’t. Namely, they moved west, which is part of how sunny, dry, and desert-like places like Los Angeles, Arizona, and Colorado first started to become so popular.
- Here’s a nutty stat for you: in 1872 one-third of Colorado’s population had tuberculosis, because so many people had moved to Colorado to recover from it.
- Not everyone could move to get fresh air, though, so they started to do everything they could to improve access to fresh air where they were. The result? A focus on adding windows to buildings, as well as porches and balconies. It’s also part of where the focus on having access to green spaces like parks began.
- Mind-blowing to me was that the focus on looking for good air also promoted people to look AT good air, and what conditions helped produce it. Those explorations led to—get this—our study of meteorology and weather!
- A lot of our current cultures of fundraising and altruism can also be traced back to earlier pandemics, from volunteers in Philadelphia donating time and money to build an orphanage for 191 kids left without parents or guardians as the result of a 1793 malaria epidemic.
- Worth exploring further is the “Free African Society, an institution run by and for [Philadelphia’s] Black population,” as provided two-thirds of the hospital staff during the same epidemic.
- As if the article didn’t have enough goodies in it already, we then discover that the Iditarod dog sled race began as the result of needing to get diphtheria treatments to the children of Nome, Alaska during the winter of 1925, when the town was inaccessible by water or other traditional land transport. Twenty dogsled teams traveled 674 miles (at -60 degrees and lower!) to deliver the antitoxin and save the children—which they did.
- Speaking of which, if you’ve ever seen the dog statue in Central Park in New York City, that’s to commemorate that first trip!
- The March of Dimes started as a fundraising initiative during the 1952 polio epidemic, when one of the main treatment centers ran out of cribs. The effort by what was then known as the National Foundation of Infantile Paralysis (NFIP) raised $25 million dollars [the equivalent of $250 million today!] from willing donors all over the country. The funding “provided iron lungs, rocking chairs, beds, and other equipment to medical facilities, and assigned physicians, nurses, physical therapists, and medical social workers where they were needed.”
The last part of the article focuses on some of the relics of the fundraising and public campaigns themselves and methods by which they reached the public:
- In 1910 (!), America saw its first movies ever: short films about how to prevent and reduce the spread of TB. They were so effective that the NFIP used similar approaches for later polio epidemics.
- It turns out concerns about vaccinations have been around for a while. From the article: “the New England Courant—the first paper in Colonial America to print the voices and perspectives of the colonists—launched their paper as a vehicle to oppose smallpox inoculation during the 1721 Boston epidemic.”
- My fellow Bostonians might recognize the name of the physician advocating for the inoculations in that smallpox epidemic. He was a fellow by the name of Zabdiel [ZABDIEL!] Boylston, a name now prominently featured all over the city and state.
- Despite the “anti-inoccers(?)” concern, the 1721 inoculations for smallpox successfully ended the epidemic. The enduring legacy of the media as a way to give a voice to and place for alternative views, however, lived on. You can see that effect today in how “we the people” use outlets of all kinds—traditional and social media, as well as others—to inform, explore, and even argue about, the best ways to deal with current and future epidemics.
How you could use it…
I find “here’s all the stuff that happened around X” articles like this to be amazing resources for future stories and illustrations. I mean, there’s just so much here. So would you use all of it? No. But could you use some elements of it? Oh, absolutely. For instance, some of the nuggets in the article would be great to illustrate:
- what good can come of tragedy, misfortune, and disease (which is what I pointed out when I originally included it in the #swipefile)
- something you’d otherwise choose to illustrate with the (overused, IMHO) “butterfly effect,” when two seemingly unrelated things turn out to be related
- speaking of unexpected connections between unrelated things, you could use it to illustrate creativity, since the ability to make those unexpected connections between seemingly unrelated things is my favorite definition of creativity
- the long-term effectiveness of asking for a small change to lay the groundwork for a larger one (also known as the “foot in the door technique“)—I’m thinking specifically here of how they didn’t ask people to stop spitting, officials provided a different way to spit. So… progress?
Now, your turn: What could you use from this article? How? Email me and let me know!
Before you go, I want to make a larger point about reading widely and randomly about things that aren’t necessarily your area of expertise. When you’re in the business of building messages—as all of us are—one of the easiest ways to make ideas irresistible is to make them interesting. Bridging from things people know about to things people don’t—like bridging from meteorology (known) to something unknown (its roots in pandemic response)—is an inherently interesting thing to people.
What’s more, though, it helps you expand what you know, and the unexpected connections you can make. It’s a known fact of the brain that the more you learn, the more you can learn. That’s because each new piece of information you put into your head gets attached to what you already have stored there, like stitching together a quilt. And, like adding on to a quilt, adding new information doesn’t replace something else, it expands your surface area to attach new things, and to add depth and interest to what you already know.
Reading in a 70s era detective novel about horses hauling trash and delivering milk even into the 1940s instantly changed my mental picture of that era. Having read this article in the Smithsonian added additional depth to this article in the Washington Post about how the current pandemic is likely to add back our attention to “good air” and airflow. (That WaPo article also has a fantastic Problem Pair in distinguishing between ambient air [miasmas!] and “vitiated” air—air expelled from someone’s body.)
In other words, I’m so glad you read my #swipefile every week, and hope you find useful ways to add to your own.Bridging from things people know about to things people don't — like bridging from meteorology (known) to something unknown (its roots in pandemic response)—is an inherently interesting thing to people. Click To Tweet
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