Popular Science Monthly/Volume 17/June 1880/Dress in Relation to Health
|DRESS IN RELATION TO HEALTH.|||
THE character of the dress of a person stands so near to the character of the person who is the wearer of it that it is difficult to touch on one without introducing the other. All sorts of sympathies are evoked by dress. Political sympathies are in the most intimate of relationships with dress; social sympathies are indexed by it; artistic sympathies are of necessity a part of it. In a word, the dress is the outward and visible skin of the creature that carries it.
A charming and at the same time a very useful lecture might be written on the metaphysics of dress; but in this practical day, when the useful only is tolerated and the charming is considered superfluous — I mean, of course, in a lecture — I must let all attempt at such a combination fall to the ground. I must deal only with what is purely physical; the physical body and the physical stuff that is put on it dress — in relation to health.
|In studying this subject I will consider the following topics:|
|Dress in relation to its mechanical adaptation to the body.|
|Dress in relation to season. I mean the amount of clothing; that should be worn at different periods of the year according to seasonal changes, in this English climate.|
|Dress in respect to the admission of atmospheric air through it or beneath it to the surface of the body.|
|Dress in relation to the color of the material of which it is composed.|
|Dress in relation to the action of coloring substances which are introduced into its fabric and which come into contact with the surface of the body.|
|Cleanliness in dress.|
These are all very serious subjects in respect to dress. If it were on the fashion of dress I had to treat, if I might have permission to lead you, as at a fancy-dress ball, through the historical domain of costume, then I might try to fascinate the most fastidious, and to make the time pass like a dream, in a promenade. Confined to health and dress, I can commit no ecstasy. I must be allowed to criticise, if not to scold, and rarely indeed to find one passing word that stands for commendation.
Let me, nevertheless, at once state that I have not a syllable of expression to bring forward against good fashion, and good changing fashion in dress. There is nothing whatever incompatible between good fashion and good health; they may always go well together, and they ought to go together. Naturally, I believe, they would always go together, because they are both good, and two goods can never make a bad. In like manner, bad fashion in dress and bad health go together very often, because two bads can not make a good. For my part, I have never seen a good fashion of dress that was not a healthy fashion, and the world has only been led astray on this matter by the unfortunate circumstance that it has allowed its taste to be directed by the childishness of ignorance. In early times costume, naturally enough, sprang out of innocence. Scientific rules were unknown, and, if we may take the history of primitive nations as true, artistic rules were not supremely developed or carried out. Through long ages fashions varied, mainly on the artistic side, approaching only toward scientific necessity in cases where arctic cold or tropical heat enforced some kind of consideration for the person who had to be clothed. Later in more modern and scientific times, fashion has been governed by the most superficial, vain, and imprudent of so-called artistes and fashion-leaders, who have invented modes out of their own little heads, and have set Nature at defiance, as if they were Nature, and she were an idiot — thereby changing places with her in the most complacent manner.
Let me say further even than this: I commend good fashion and fine, nay exquisite, taste in dress as a good thing of itself, independently of health. I agree entirely with Mrs. Haweis that it is the bounden duty of every woman to make herself look as handsome as ever she can. If she have natural beauty, she ought to study how to maintain it in and through every period of her life — yes — to the last; for there is nothing more beautiful than beauty in old age. If she have moderate beauty, she should do her utmost to make the best of it. If she have no beauty, she ought to impart all that is possibly near to it by every kind of justifiable supplement. If she be positively ugly, the more is it her duty to use every legitimate art to hide the fact, and to transform even ugliness into passable presentation. Look at an ugly woman badly attired, and showing all the lines that offend taste. Look at the same woman gracefully attired and fairly, artistically gotten up, with some approach toward the beautiful, and who would hesitate to pronounce in favor of a longer téte-à-téte with the last of that woman as compared with the first? Why! we blockheads of men are sometimes entirely taken in by skillful, ugly women. We look upon them as handsome. The deception is justifiable, and our satisfaction is more than a recompense for our stupidity.
What is good for women is not worse for men, but I am sorry to say that men are far behind women in their endeavors to assume the beautiful. In my time I have never, off the stage, seen a man dressed many removes from the hideous. When I first began to look at my male seniors, universal black was the rage, black from head to foot; the very head, which was the only part of the animal that emerged out of darkness, rising from a broad black ring called a stock, into which the chin sometimes dropped. A little later, and an extremely tight mode of dress came into fashion, a mode which is not yet entirely discarded, but which still fits closely to those strangely occupied individuals called "copers," about whom there is a mystery as to whether their clothes were not originally and permanently modeled to their bodies. Recently there has been some attempt at improvement in English male attire. The surtout-coat, rather loosely fitting, and cut so as to hang well from the shoulders, has imported a modest but good change in fashion, while the looser and better-shaped nether habiliments have so improved in design that even the sculptors have, at last, with much compunction of conscience, ventured to reproduce them in marble.
Still, in the attire of men, and I think I must say in the attire of women also, a great deal is wanting in taste, and the most bigoted Darwinian would hardly, I think, dare to declare the doctrine of "the survival of the fittest" in respect of modern clothes, whatever he might say of the wearers of them.
I name these points that I may not be accused of feeling no care for the fashion connected with dress. I would have good fashion go with every hygienic improvement in clothes and clothing, and I know it would be easy to prove that hygiene of dress could always be combined with the most artistic and perfect of fashionable designings, by which combination health, comfort, and elegance would all be insured.
Such combination set forth as a national fashion should pass, as I think, through all classes of the community; for, assuredly, even at this time, though it be better than it once was, few things designate classes and keep up distinctions of classes so much as the clothes that are worn, the badges, I had almost said, of the wearers. The costumes of the trim shopman, the slovenly mechanic, the country laborer, the flourishing squire, the tight-laced soldier, the club exquisite, the lugubrious doctor, the devil-may-care artist, and the awful ecclesiastic in his demented hat and sacred pinafore — these costumes and others betray a want of national taste and national unity which I for one, health-seeker as I would be, utterly repudiate. There can be no amalgamation of mind and heart while these distinctive outside declarations exist among us. In robes of office, during periods of office, men may well be distinctively clad. On the bench, at the bar, in the pulpit, in the professor's chair, such costumes are classically graceful and usefully distinctive, while in the workshop or other place of business a particular outer dress suited to the occupation is no doubt necessary; but for ordinary intercourse something in common in the way of dress were surely, in these advanced days, the thing to cultivate.
I pass now to the first head of my subject proper: Dress in relation to its mechanical adaptation to the body.
I. The first and most serious mechanical error committed on the body by dress is that of tightness, by which pressure is brought to bear upon some particular part. Presuming that an equable general pressure, not extreme in its character, and including the whole body, were applied for fitting purposes, that is to say, for the purpose of indicating outline, no great evil probably would follow from the application of such pressure, provided that it were so adapted as to give with the growth, to yield a certain measure of elasticity, and to permit perfect freedom of motion. A little more, perhaps, may be admitted even than this. In advanced life, when the shape of the body becomes irregular, and when the weight of those parts drags on the rest of the body, clothing specially adapted to those parts, and surrounding them with close and even pressure, gives useful and effective support, adding greatly at the same time, it may be, to the appearance of the body. These are exceptional conditions requiring exceptional management.
That kind of pressure to which objection must be most determinately taken is where the pressure is used, not for giving support to the body, nor for sustaining natural outline, but for the express purpose of producing an entirely artificial shape and outline. It is astonishing how resolutely the advanced professors of medicine, in all times in which they have written, have denounced the practice of compressing the body in the stages of its growth for the purpose of molding it into some unnatural form incident to fashion. It is equally astonishing to find how resolutely the votaries of the fashion have resisted the teachings of the learned, who may be said never to have made a single point in advance toward a practical victory. Now and then fashion has given way for a short time, but it seems always to have fallen back again and resumed its place.
For my part, I can do no more than earnestly follow my predecessors and compeers in their crusade against this foolish practice, and especially against it as it affects the female part of the community. The corset and the waist-belt I must once more condemn as opposed to all that is healthful and all that is beautiful. By these appliances, through which an unequal pressure is exerted on one part of the body, the functions of the lungs, of the heart, and of the digestive organs are all kept under imperfect condition. The breathing is suppressed, the heart-beat is suppressed, the digestive power is suppressed. In this way the tripod of life — for life rests on the digestion, the respiration, and circulation — is made imperfect, and with that imperfection every other part of the body sympathizes. Of late years women have raised the cry, and I think quite properly, that they are too much subjected to the will of men, that they have not the privileges which should belong to them as fellow human beings. But, in fact, no subjection to which they have ever submitted can be greater than this to which they have subjected themselves, and I would venture to say that, while they continue this self-infliction, they can never, under any improved system of social freedom, experience the benefit of the change. If, to-morrow, women were placed in all respects on an equality with men, if they were permitted to sit in Parliament, enter the jury-box, or ascend the Bench itself, they would remain under subjection to superior mental and physical force so long as they crippled their physical, vital, and mental constitutions by this one practice of cultivating, under an atrocious view of what is beautiful, a form of body which is destructive of development of body, which reduces physical power, and which thereby deadens mental capability.
Of the two evil practices to which I refer, the tight waist-belt is, I think, worse than the tight corset, except where the corset is so adapted that it acts at one and the same time as belt and compressor general. The effect of either is to press down upon the liver and stomach, to prevent the free circulation of blood through these organs, to diminish their active physiological function, to make them descend and compress the vital organs that lie beneath them, and so to impair the growth and action of all the great secreting structures. The effect, again, is to interfere with the great breathing-muscle, the diaphragm or midriff, which divides the chest from the abdomen, and which, by its descent, causes the lungs to fill in breathing. Lastly, the effect is to press upward, and so to interfere with the heart and lungs themselves. An eminent Parisian physician, M. Breschet, recorded many years ago the facts relating to a woman who, on the right side, of her throat, had a swelling which reached from the collar-bone to the level of the thyroid cartilage, and which, when the chest was tightly laced in corsets, was enlarged to its fullest. In this swelling the murmur of respiration could be heard when a stethoscope was applied over it; but, when the chest was set at liberty and the swelling was gently pressed downward, it disappeared. In this instance, a portion of the right lung had actually been forced behind the collar-bone, out of the cavity of the chest altogether, into the loose tissue of the neck.
This was a very exceptional experience, no doubt — one I have not myself seen nor found record of in this country. At the same time, I have seen very close approaches to it. I have several times known the lungs to be pushed quite out of place and compressed toward the upper part of the thorax, and I have known the heart extremely displaced by the same pressure.
That which mothers and the guardians of youth ought to know is, not only the fact of displacement of organs under pressure, not only the fact of the temporary derangement of the function of the organs, but the further and more important fact of all, as affecting the future life of the person most concerned, that under the pressure the organs implicated can not grow so as to attain their full and complete development within the period that marks the outline of growth. It is impossible, therefore, that those who are imprisoned in growth can attain full development of body. The folly they pay for in youth extends through middle age, and expedites the decline.
The evils arising from compression of the chest, as above mentioned, are not confined altogether to the female sex. They are brought about in boys and in men. It often becomes a habit in schools and colleges for youths to employ a strap or other form of belt for holding up their trousers; one boy sets the example, and the others think it right to follow; so the practice becomes general, and you find a tight line indicating pressure marked round the bodies of these youths. Fortunately, in their case, as they emerge into life, and before great mischief is done, they give up the strap and take to supporting the clothes from the shoulders, by the brace, and so they escape further injury; but while it lasted the injury undoubtedly was severe.
There is another and more permanent injury of this kind, however, carried out by boys, even by men, which consists in wearing a belt for the purpose of giving what is called support. Boys who are about to run in races, or to leap, put on the belt and strap it tightly, in order, as they say, to hold in their wind or breath. Workingmen who are about to lift weights or carry heavy burdens put on a belt for the same purpose, their declaration being that it gives support. Actually there is not a figment of truth in this belief. It is the expression of a fashion, and nothing more. The belt impedes respiration, compresses the abdominal muscles, compresses the muscles of the back, subjecting them to unnecessary friction, and actually impedes motion. No boy would think of putting a belt tightly round the body of his pony if he wished it to win a race or to leap a hurdle; no workingman would put a belt tightly round the body of a horse to make it pull with greater facility a load which it was drawing. On themselves they commence the practice, because somebody has set the example; then they get accustomed to the impediment, and think they can not get on without it. Drinking is learned by just the same absurd process.
I had a workingman once in my employ who would undertake no vigorous effort until he had tightened his belt. Once I got him to test what he could lift with and without the belt, and he was obliged himself to admit that he could do more without it than with it; but, he argued, he could not get on without it. That is what ladies say about corsets.
Respecting this belt for boys and men, there is a word more I must say which is of serious import. When they put on the belt for the sake of performing some feat of strength, they effect another dangerous mischief. Compressing the abdomen, they force, during the exertion, the contents of the abdominal cavity downward under pressure, giving no chance to resilience back again after the exertion or shock. In this way they frequently cause hernia or rupture. I have seen, professionally, several instances of this occurrence in boys, and among workmen who wear belts this accidental disease is so common that it is the rule rather than the exception to find it present.
Other forms of tight pressure upon the body are open to serious if not to equal objection. The wearing of shoes which compress and distort the feet is a singularly injurious custom. Suppose I said that nine tenths of the feet of the members of an English community were rendered misshapen by the boots and shoes worn, the statement would seem extreme, but it would be within the truth. The pointed shoe or boot is the most signal instance of a mischievous instrument designed for the torture of feet. In this shoe the great-toe is forced out of its natural line toward the other toes, giving a reverse curve from what is natural to the terminal part of the inner side of the foot, while all the other toes are compressed together toward the great-toe, the whole producing a wedge-like form of foot which is altogether apart from the natural. Such a foot has lost its expanse of tread; such a foot has lost its elastic resistance; such a foot has lost the strength of its arch to a very considerable degree; such a foot, by the irregular and unusual pressure on certain points of its surface, has become hard at those points, and is easily affected with corns and. bunions. Lastly, such a foot becomes badly nourished, and the pressure exerted upon it interferes with its circulation and nutrition. It ceases to be an instrument upon which the body can sustain itself with grace and with easiness of movement, even in early life; while in mature life and in old age it becomes a foot which is absolutely unsafe, and which causes much of that irregular, hobbling tread which often renders so peculiar the gait of persons who have passed their meridian.
It sometimes happens for a time that these mistakes in regard to the boot and shoe are increased by the plan of raising the heel and letting it rest on a raised impediment of a pointed shape. Anything more barbarous can scarcely be conceived. By this means the body, which should naturally be balanced on a most beautiful arch, is placed on an inclined plane, and is only prevented from falling forward by the action of the muscles which counterbalance the mechanical error. But all this is at the expense of lost muscular effort along the whole line of the muscular track, from the heels actually to the back of the head — a loss of force which is absolutely useless, and, as I have known in several cases, exhausting and painful. In addition to these evils arising from the pointed heeled boot, there are yet two more. In the first place, the elastic spring of the arch being broken by the heel, the vibration produced by its contact with the earth, at every step, causes a concussion which extends along the whole of the spinal column, and is sometimes very acutely felt. In the second place, the expanse of the foot being limited, the seizure of the earth by the foot is incomplete both in standing and in walking, so that it becomes a new art to learn how to stand erect or to walk with safety.
Another form of constriction in dress is that produced by the garter. By this pressure a line of depression is often produced quite round the limb below the knee, and the course of blood through the veins from the foot and leg, into the body, is seriously impeded. This is one cause of varicose veins, sometimes an original cause, and always a serious impediment to recovery when, from any other reason, the enlarged or varicose vein is already present. The ligature or band called the garter is bad in any way, but is far worse when it is worn below than above the knee, for above the knee the two tendons, commonly called ham-strings, receive the pressure of a great portion of the bandage, and act as bridges to the veins which pass beneath.
In men I have seen mischief from the tight cravat and collar, the pressure caused by the same leading to an obstruction to the due return of the blood from the brain. This, in persons of plethoric habits especially, is a danger not to be disregarded, and, though it may be of comparatively rare occurrence, it is worth mentioning. I have more than once in my life had occasion to see the injurious results produced by it.
I have now referred to the four varieties of pressure which are the most injurious in dress: pressure at the waist; pressure at the foot; pressure round the leg; and pressure round the neck. I place them in the order of their importance, but the first undoubtedly outweighs the others altogether.
It is actually impossible to overstate the physical injuries which result from these mistakes in bodily attire. I have told some of them. I reserve one which I will state before I pass to a new section. It will, perhaps, influence some who are comparatively thoughtless on this subject; it will, I am sure, influence all sensible and thoughtful people. It is this observation, that the mischiefs inflicted by mode of dress become hereditary in character. I do not mean to say that, because a person produces in himself or herself a deformed waist or foot, by dress, therefore that particular deformity will be physically hereditary in the offspring of such person. I think the evidence is rather against that view, because it would seem that the Chinese children, born of mothers whose feet have been mechanically distorted, are born with feet which would come to a natural condition if they were not bandaged in infancy in the same manner as the mothers' were. But of this I am sure, that the hereditary tendency to commit these deforming acts is hereditarily received and hereditarily transmitted, and that the sense of desire for the performance of the act is also transmissible. This, in fact, is one of the great difficulties which we teachers have to overcome. We have to fight against inbred proclivities, which are so deep rooted that I believe if all the women of England at this time could, by a voluntary act of education, be led to give up tight lacing, another generation, perhaps two generations, would have to live before the practice was entirely abolished.
The lesson we have to learn and practice in respect to the mechanical arrangements of dress so far is, that every plan which leads to irregular tightening of the body should be given up. The corset and waist-strap should especially be abandoned, and our young girls should be taught to grow up just as their brothers grow, without ever learning the sense of false support which the corset soon suggests as a necessity. With the members of both sexes a reform should be introduced in the matter of boots and shoes. The tight boot should be entirely discarded, and that boot preferred which approaches nearest in form to the natural foot. Mrs. Haweis and others have insisted on the removal of the raised heel altogether from the boot, with which I entirely agree. Anatomically and physiologically it is a complete mistake to have the heel raised from the ground beyond the level of the palm of the foot. The moment the heel is raised, the plan of the arch is deranged, and the elastic, wave-like motion of the foot impeded. The arch ought always to have full play, and Mr. Dowie's plan of introducing an elastic connection or band across the arch, so as to allow it freedom, is an admirable device.
The method by which clothes should be supported on the body is another extremely important subject in connection with dress, and especially in relation to the dresses worn by women. Copying probably from an Eastern custom, and from the primitive method of wearing a girdle, it has become a habit endorsed by long centuries of use for women to carry all their long, flowing robes from the waist. These, tied one over the other, layer upon layer, and with sufficient tightness to enable the garments to be borne by the actual pressure upon the waist, are as great an incumbrance to the wearer as the corset. Indeed, it is sometimes argued that the corset is necessary, in order that the pressure may be sustained, the corset itself acting as a kind of shield between the body and the bands, and acting also in some way like a shoulder for supporting the bands. When the dresses which are thus sustained are short and of light texture, the weight and incumbrance are considerable; but when the dresses are long, when they trail on the ground, and when they are made of heavy material, the weight and incumbrance are drags on the life, which I suspect the strongest man could not sustain while engaged in his ordinary avocations.
I am rejoiced to see that ladies themselves, who are writing intelligently on this topic, are earnestly teaching in respect to it what is both common sense and common humanity. I agree with these that the tax of carrying clothes from the waist is utterly unjustifiable, and that the parts that should bear the burden are the shoulders and none other. In this regard women ought to be placed under just the same favorable conditions for movement of the body as men, and the greatest emancipation that woman will ever have achieved will have arrived when she has discovered and carried out this practical improvement.
In saying this I do not for a moment wish to suggest that the outward appearance of the feminine dress should be like that of the masculine dress. To the woman, the flowing robe which even trespasses a little on the ground is most graceful, and is signally characteristic of feminine beauty. I would, therefore, that it should remain in all its gracefulness, but in so far as everything else is concerned, for every circumstance in which health is involved, for warmth, for freedom of movement, for mode by which the dress is carried from the shoulders, I would say, Let the women have all the advantages which now belong to men.
For any one who will for a moment think candidly must admit that the dress of men, however bad it may be in taste, or in whatever bad taste it may have been conceived, is, in respect to health, infinitely superior to that of women. In the dress of the man every part of the body is equally covered. The middle of the body is not enveloped in a number of close layers, while the lower limbs are left without close clothing altogether. The center of the body is not strained with a weight which almost drags down the lower limbs and back. The chest is not exposed to every wind that blows, and the feet are not bewildered with heavy garments which they have to kick forward or drag from behind with every advancing step. The body is clothed equally. The clothing is borne by the shoulders; it gives free motion to breathing; it gives freedom of motion to the circulation; it makes no undue pressure on the digestive organs; it leaves the limbs free; it is easily put on and off; and it allows of ready change in vicissitudes of weather. These are the advantages of modern attire for the man, and all I claim is that they should, by faithful copy, be extended to the woman, with the one exception of the graceful outer gown or robe, as a supplement to her own superior grace and beauty.
It is told of the late eminent surgeon Mr. Cline, the teacher of Sir Astley Cooper, that when he was consulted by a lady on the question how she should prevent a girl from growing up misshapened, he replied, "Let her have no stays, and let her run about like the boys." I gladly reecho this wise advice of the great surgeon; and I would venture to add to it another suggestion. I would say to the mothers of England: Let your girls dress just like your boys, make no difference whatever in respect to them — give them knickerbockers, if you like — with these exceptions, that the under-garments be of a little lighter material, and that they be supplemented by an outer gown or robe which shall take the place of the outer coat of the boys, and shall make them look distinctively what they are — girls clothed cap-à-pie, and well clothed from head to foot.
In speaking of these mechanical arrangements of dress I have as yet made no mention of the throat and the head as parts requiring to be clothed. In suggesting that girls should be clothed as fully as boys, I have incidentally conveyed that the chest of the girl should be covered, and I would add that in both sexes the throat should be covered also during the period extending from October to April. The throat is one of the most important parts to protect, and it is, as is well known, one of the most common parts of the body to become affected during cold weather. In this past bad weather it has been my constant — I had nearly said, daily — observation to see some affection of the throat, attended with cold, and so often has this occurred in those whose throats have been uncovered as compared with those who have used careful moderate covering, that I can not doubt that the absence of such coverings has had, and has, a very deleterious effect.
Of coverings for the head I should say that they should be always light and free, whether a bonnet, or a cap, or a hat be the subject under dispute. I think the gypsy hat beats the Quaker bonnet for the fairer sex; and, although for men I can not say anything in favor of the tall chimney-pot that will redeem it from its ugliness, I must claim for it that, when it is light and well ventilated, it is healthy. The felt hats are too closely fitting, though some are becoming. The stiff felt hat, with narrow, turned-up brim, and which looks like a Roundhead's helmet without the metal, is in respect to health miserable, and in respect to appearance simply hideous. The most graceful of all headdresses for either sex — and it suits either — is the fine old Geneva cap, sometimes called the "Leonardo da Vinci," which I wear on occasions, by right, as the doctor's cap of the old University of St. Andrews. It is not merely a handsome head-dress, it is healthy also, and adapts itself to heat and cold. I, for one, would willingly give up the particular privilege of wearing it, to see it more widely adopted.
II. From the subject of mechanical adaptations of dress I pass to consider dress in relation to season; the amount and kind of clothing that should be worn at different periods of the year.
On this subject there is great contrariety of opinion, and perhaps still greater contrariety of practice. There are those who maintain that to be healthy the body should be hardened by exposure to cold, and that to wrap up and coddle is the weakest and worst of all plans. It must be admitted that there are some persons who seem to flourish under this régime, and who live to advanced age without suffering from cold even when lightly clad. I have known myself three men who have approached their ninetieth year, and who always vigorously refused to wrap up at all. Such persons are great examples, but they are too exceptional to be counted as safe ones. The majority of the aged die, as a rule, rapidly during the cold weather. I have known children that have lived through their childhood half clothed in coldest seasons; and these are great examples, but they also are too exceptional to be accepted as safe examples. As a rule, ill-clad children in cold weather suffer intensely, and often die.
On, the other hand, no doubt, some persons do greatly over-encumber themselves with clothes; and it is curious to observe that stout persons, who are wrapped and thoroughly lapped in their own subcutaneous non-conducting layer of fat, and who are generally feeble, encumber themselves with more clothes than their lithe and spare-ribbed friends, who really require most protection.
The truth is, that extremes on both sides are bad, and that a dash of good common sense is required to equalize them.
In this climate the regulation of dress in relation to health is an actual necessity during the varied seasons that prevail. We may take it as a general rule that, when the body requires more food and more sleep to meet the cold, it requires also more clothes than it does at times when sleep and food are also less wanted. There is a very remarkable physiological truth bearing on this point which every one ought to know, inasmuch as a knowledge of it becomes a guide to us in our daily life, not only in relation to dress, but to food, exercise, labor, and repose. The truth is so practical that I dwell upon it with some detail. It is this: There are certain periods of the year, in this climate, during which, independently of our wills or our actions, we are gaining in bodily weight, while there are other periods when we are losing, both periods showing a regularity which is as singularly correct as it is singularly interesting. This truth was first discovered by my late friend Mr. W. R. Milner, for many years medical superintendent of the large prison at Wakefield. His discovery was elicited by the laborious process of weighing, daily, immense numbers of prisoners through various seasons for a long series of years. I give his results as he himself has stated them.
The prisoners were all males between the ages of sixteen and fifty, and were presumed to be in good health when sent. The cells in which they were confined had a cubic capacity of about nine hundred feet, and from thirty to thirty-five cubic feet of air were passed through each cell per minute. The mean temperature of the cells for the entire year was 61º; the highest monthly mean, 66·5º, occurred in August; the lowest, 56·9º, in March.
The diet was uniform, with the exception of the alterations ordered by the medical officer in individual cases, and consisted of the following articles daily: Bread, twenty ounces; meat without bone, four ounces; soup, half a pint — these are equivalent to about seven ounces and three quarters of butcher's meat — potatoes, one pound; skimmed milk three quarters of a pint; gruel, one pint, containing two ounces of oatmeal. The dress was, a cloth jacket, waistcoat, and trousers; cap and stock; linen shirt; woolen stockings, drawers, and under-shirt.
The prisoners were sent out to exercise in the open air nine hours a week; the exercise was for one hour at a time; the men walked in circles, and every ten minutes they ran for a hundred and fifty yards. They were all supplied with work, and were for the most part employed in making mats and matting of cocoa-fiber and other materials; some worked at tailoring and shoemaking, and a few had other work to perform.
All the prisoners were weighed on admission, and at the latter end of every calendar month during their stay.
The number of prisoners over whom these observations extended was four thousand; the period of time occupied, ten years; the average number weighed monthly, three hundred and seventy-two; and the total number of weighings, forty-four thousand and four. . The men had all been weighed by Mr. Milner or under his superintendence, and the series of observations was unbroken.
The results of these weighings were tabulated on various bases, with a view to isolate the effect of a certain number of variable on the gain or loss of weight among these prisoners, and to determine the amount of influence exerted by each of these conditions.
The conditions selected for investigation were:
1. The season of the year.
2. The period of imprisonment.
3. The employment in prison.
4. The age of the prisoners on admission.
5. The height of prisoners on admission.
The influence exerted by each of these conditions was well marked, and, with one exception, viz., the influence of season, the deductions were such as would have been anticipated.
The first showed the influence of the season of the year on the weight of a number of men placed during the entire year under circumstances of food, clothing, and work which did not differ, and who, for the greater part of the day, were in a temperature which did not vary greatly between the hottest and the coldest months. Under such circumstances it might be expected that the weight of the men, taken as a whole, would remain sensibly the same; and that the numbers losing or gaining, as well as the quantities lost or gained, would vary little month by month; or that, if any marked variation occurred, it would be of an accidental character, depending on the greater or less amount of sickness during any particular month. The results, however, showed that a marked periodicity existed, and that, taking an average of years, there were two distinct series of months, during the one of which there was a constant loss of weight, and during the other a constant gain, so that, if the year were divided into quarters, there was a loss during the first and fourth quarters, and a gain during the second and third.
The two series of gaining and losing months were unbroken, except in one instance. On reference to the results it was found that in November, which was in the losing series, a gain occurred. The amount gained was very small, and the discrepancy was caused by the arrival of large numbers of prisoners in September and October, who usually gained weight for a short time after they were received, so that probably this break in the series resulted from the influence of the stage of imprisonment, which rather more than balanced the influence of season. On estimating carefully the facts which showed the average gain or loss per prisoner weighed, it was seen that, beginning at December, the amount lost per man increased rapidly and very steadily till March, but that between March and April there was a very abrupt transition from loss to gain. The gains then continued till August, the amount gained increasing on the whole, by a series of jerks, each alternate month presenting a larger and a smaller gain respectively: so that, to obtain a steadily increasing series, it was necessary to couple the summer months in pairs. Between August and September a change of weight occurred, about equal in amount, but in the opposite direction to that which took place between March and April. The changes between March-April and August-September were far greater in amount than the changes which took place between any other pairs of consecutive months; and this remark applied with greater force to the percentages of men gaining or losing, and to the net gains and losses per man.
The inferences which may be fairly drawn from these observations were: 1. The body becomes heavier during the summer months, and the gain varies in an increasing ratio. 2. The body becomes lighter during the winter months, and the loss varies in an increasing ratio. 3. The changes from gain to loss, and the reverse, are abrupt, and take place about the end of March and the beginning of September.
The results, which were thus gathered from the study of a large number of periodical weighings, presented a remarkable relation to the facts obtained by Dr. Edward Smith from a series of most valuable and elaborate experiments which he made on the quantities of carbonic acid thrown off by the lungs at various seasons of the year. For instance, Dr. Smith found that the quantity of carbonic acid thrown off was much greater in winter than in summer. Milner's weighings showed that the prisoners lost weight in winter, when the evolution of carbonic gas was great, and gained weight in summer, when less carbonic acid was given out.
This in itself would be a striking coincidence; but it was clearly detected that a sudden change took place between March and April, and at the same time of the year Dr. Smith found that a similar change took place in the amount of carbonic acid thrown off, and that the amount of the change was much greater at that period than at any other time; and so much greater that the alteration struck him as being a very remarkable circumstance. Dr. Smith's observations did not extend to the August-September period, and it is, therefore, impossible to say if any equally marked change takes place in autumn. There can be little doubt that variations of temperature and of light are the principal agents in causing these changes; but it will probably be found that, in addition to the direct influence of these physical agents, a periodic action in the system adds to or diminishes the effect of those physical agencies.
From the consideration of the facts collected we may fairly infer that there is a periodic variation in the weight of man during the year, the six summer months being gaining and the six winter months being losing months. The amounts gained or lost gradually increase from the commencement till the termination of each period respectively; the change from the gaining to the losing period and the converse is, however, abrupt, and these changes take place at times not very distant from the vernal and autumnal equinoxes.
Bearing on the question thus raised by Mr. Milner, I myself, from the Registrar-General's returns, made an analysis of 139,318 deaths, occurring, from 1838 to 1853, in London, Devonshire, and Cornwall, with a view of determining what causes of death were connected with the varying seasons of the year; and the result was to discover that during the wasting season, which was by far the most fatal, those diseases were most rife which spring from exposure to cold, and which are extremely fatal under that condition. I have since then many times drawn special attention to the importance of regulating clothing so as to meet the emergency to which the body is exposed during the wasting period; and the rules I had then in my mind I would enforce now. It should be a settled practice with every person in these islands that he commence to put on warmer clothing a little before the wasting period begins, and that he continue it considerably beyond the time when the balance turns and the period of increasing weight commences.
Bearing still further on this point, I have received a most practical note from the Rev. B. A. Irving, M. A., head master of the college, Windermere, in which the argument set forth above is fully confirmed. Mr. Irving indicates, from meteorological data, that about the 10th of May and about the 10th of November there is a remarkable fall in the mean temperature. The fall, commencing in November, continues to increase until the end of February. The pinch of cold in May is followed by-warmth, which continues through the summer. The rule Mr. Irving deduces from these physical facts is, that we should be warmest clothed from the end of January to the end of February, and that summer clothing should on no account be assumed until the cold pinch about the 10th of May is well passed — say about the 15th of May. The summer dress may then be continued until the end of September; but winter clothing should be most carefully assumed before the cold pinch of November 10th — say by the 1st of November. With this sound advice I entirely agree.
Need I hesitate to say how dangerously these simple rules are ignored, and that, too, by those to whom it most solemnly applies! The delicate girl invited to the ball or evening party, in the winter season, goes there with a throat and chest exposed or partly covered, and with all her garments as light as fashion will permit them. She goes into a close room, heated to 65º or it may be 70º. She dances herself into a glow, and then, exhausted, excited, and breathless, she passes out of the room, to exchange its warmth for a temperature of 35º, or lower — perhaps below freezing-point. She takes cold, she suffers from congestion of the lungs, and, if her tendencies are in that direction, she passes into consumption. And who shall wonder?
As spring advances, dangers increase to everybody. The weather is treacherous; a bright day or two in March seems to herald summer, and the warm clothing is cast aside. Suddenly, there is a fall of temperature with a bitter east wind, and the unprepared are caught as if in a trap. They have passed the long wintry ordeal before which so many have succumbed, and they are reviving, but have not revived. In this condition they are stricken with disease, often fatal. If you study the Registrar-General's returns through the months of March, April, and the early part of May for a few years, you will see how solemnly correct is the history I am now bringing under your notice.
You will ask, What kind of clothing is best to meet the varying changes? I answer, That which combines lightness with warmth, and which absorbs the watery secretion from the body without retaining it. For underclothing I give a decided preference to silk, basing this preference entirely on practical grounds. Knitted or woven silk is at once the material which best maintains warmth, affords lightness, and transmits perspiration. If the expense of it be urged on one side, its extraordinary durability may be named as a set-off. The silk should be worn next to the skin. Over the silk, for nine months in the year at least, there should be a woolen covering which should include the whole body. This should not be made of thick, heavy flannel, for thickness and weight contribute little to warmth, but of soft, light, fleecy material, or of that thin flannel which somewhat resembles silk in structure. The feet coverings should be of the same character, and long socks should be preferred to stockings. The upper clothing, like the under, should be of light and, at the same time, warm character, and the final overcoat or cloak should carefully vary with the season. In coldest weather fur is, I think, without doubt, the best external clothing. The overcoat or cloak should, in all cases, fit loosely to the body.
III. Connected with this part of my discourse, there comes in naturally the ventilation of clothes on the body to which I referred in the opening paragraphs. I can not too seriously express the necessity of maintaining a free ventilation. Whatever impedes the evaporation of water from the body leads, of necessity, to some derangement of the body, if not to disease; for the retained moisture, saturating the garments, produces chilliness of surface, and checks the action of the skin. Then follow cold, dyspepsia, and, in those who are disposed to it, rheumatism. For these reasons I always hold that the so-called waterproofs are sources of great danger, unless they are used with great discrimination. It is true they keep the body dry in wet weather, but they wet it through from its own rain; and when the body is freely exercised and perspires copiously during rain, shut up with its own secretion on one side of the waterproof covering, and chilled by the water that falls on the other, it is in a poor plight indeed. It had better be wet to the skin in a porous clothing. Hence, I would advise that the waterproof should only be used when the body is at rest, as when standing or sitting in the rain. During active exercise a good, large, strong umbrella — none of your finikin parasol-like pretenses — is worth any number of waterproofs.
IV. The color of the dress is another practical point of considerable moment. The "Lancet," a few weeks ago, was very much criticised for suggesting that in the cold, dark weather dresses of light color should be worn. The "Lancet," nevertheless, was right. The light-colored dress is at once the warmest and the healthiest. In the Arctic regions white is the prevailing color of the animal that most retains its warmth. The same color is also best adapted for summer wear, for that which is negative to cold does not absorb heat. The objection made to white clothing is, that it so soon becomes dirty, or, correctly speaking, that it more quickly than darker fabrics shows the presence of dirt. This might be an advantage in many cases, but I think it is fair to admit that white out and out, for all times and seasons, is not practical. The best compromise is a gray, and I wonder that in our climate that practical fact, which was once known and acted upon, has ever been allowed to die out. Those wise and discerning forefathers of ours, who utilized the serviceable gray suits, were best informed, after all, in the matter of color of dress, for health as well as for service.
Fashion, in these later times, has misled once more, by the introduction of the incorrigible black clothing for the outer suit of men and women. The inconvenience of this selection reaches its height in the infliction it imposes on those poor ladies who, after bereavement, think it necessary to clothe themselves in unwholesome folds of inky crape. Next to the suttee, this seems to me the most painful of miseries inflicted on the miserable. Happily, it is, I think, beginning to see its last days.
V. I would make, in one or two sentences, an observation on the coloring substances that are sometimes introduced into dress, in their relation to health. When the aniline color stuffs were brought in for dyeing under-garments of red or yellow color, the-dyes caused, sometimes, where they came into contact with the skin, a local irritation, and now and then even some constitutional derangement. The agents which were at work to produce these conditions were the poisonous dyes called red and yellow coralline. The local action of both these poisons is sharp, and they bring upon the skin a raised eruption of minute round pimples, which I have known to be mistaken for the eruption of measles by the unskilled in diagnosis. The irritation which attends the rash is painful, and if there be much rubbing of the part little vesicles may form and give out a watery discharge. Once I knew an eruption on the chest, caused by a red woolen comforter, attended with much nervous prostration; but, as a rule, the evil is purely local, the coloring matter being not readily absorbed by the skin. This is fortunate, for the poison would be intense if it were to enter the blood.
It is necessary at once to remove the colored garment when it is causing the local mischief, and such garments should never be worn until they have been many times rinsed in boiling water.
VI. Cleanliness in dress, the last passage in my programme, is one on which, to an educated audience, I need not dwell. Health will not be clad in dirty raiment, and those who think it can be will soon find themselves subjected to various minor ailments — oppression, dullness, headache, nausea — which in themselves and singly seem of little moment, but which affect materially the standard of perfect health by which life is blithely and usefully manifested. The want now most felt among the educated, in our large centers, is the means for getting a due supply of well-washed clean clothes. The laundry is still up a tree, and, when you climb to it, it is rarely found worth the labor of the ascent. In London, at this moment, a thousand public laundries are wanted, before that cleanliness which is next to godliness can ever be recognized by the apostles of health who feel that their mission in the world stands second only on the list of goodly and godly labors for mankind. — Gentleman's Magazine.
- Lecture delivered at the London Institution on Monday, March 1, 1880.