What Hygiene Was Like During the Industrial Revolution

What Hygiene Was Like During the Industrial Revolution


The Industrial Revolution
was a period in history where factory work was
beginning to claim dominance over the workforce,
beginning in England, and eventually spreading
over the pond into America. But lacking in regulation,
oversight, and in some cases, basic knowledge of
disease and how it spread, the lower class citizens and
factory workers of this time lived in literal squalor. Today we’re going to examine
what hygiene was really like during the
Industrial Revolution. But before we inhale some
delightful industrial pollutants, why don’t you
subscribe to Weird History, and let us know
what historical era you would like to
hear more about. Now, pour yourself a big
cup of sewage river water. We’re diving in. [MUSIC PLAYING] German writer Georg
Weerth lovingly described the air in Leeds
as akin to swallowing a pound of cayenne
pepper, which one should avoid unless it becomes
a thing on the internet. Then, do the cayenne pepper
challenge immediately, hashtag spicyspicy. Leeds had it better than
Weerth’s hometown of Bradford, however, a major factory
town during the Industrial Revolution, which he
described as a literal hell, saying, if anyone wants to feel
how a poor sinner is tormented in purgatory, let him
travel to Bradford. That saying was somehow excluded
off the Bradford tour guide brochure. Weerth and his
friends, Karl Marx– yes, that Karl Marx– and Friedrich Engels
would hang out and talk about what a
dump of Bradford was. And they might have
been onto something, since the life expectancy
at the time in Bradford was only 25 to 30 years old. There weren’t exactly
a ton of boomers to make fun of in those days. Today, Brits can take comfort in
having a long life expectancy. UK men fall at a solid
79 years, while women have a slightly longer
expectancy at 83. Women– flawless victory. However, back in the
Industrial Revolution before Purell and
modern medicine, it was significantly lower
for the lowly laborers. The middle class clocked
out at an average age of 45. English factory workers
were lucky to make it to 30 years old. Laborers were exposed
to a wide assortment of toxins and disease at
much higher rates than those not working in poorly
regulated factory conditions. Factor in how easily disease was
spread from person to person, plus neglected water sources
and general overpopulation, the situation was ripe
for widespread infections. And boy, was there. [MUSIC PLAYING] It’s easy to take
for granted how cholera-free most people live
their lives in the modern age. But during the
Industrial Revolution, it was decisively less easy. Cholera was a real problem
in 19th-century England, with four separate
cholera outbreaks that would take the lives of
almost 15,000 people in London alone. The disease, which was rather
fatal during this time, was easily spread due to poor
water treatment management in the UK. There was nothing to
guard against the sewage water and the drinking
water, two streams that should very much never cross,
from very much crossing. Hence, the rapid rise
of horrible diseases through contaminated water. They even gave his painful
tummy disease a royal nickname, referring to it as King
Cholera, which sounds like an ’80s wrestler’s name. Cholera wasn’t infecting
the streets of the UK alone, however. Typhus and typhoid were
running these streets as well. Typhoid also spread through
poorly treated water, hung out in the
county’s well water, and caused flu-like symptoms. Typhus was spread through lice– fun little bugs that
loved a good group hang. And the crowded tenements
and shared living spaces were basically typhus-smothered
lice-Coachella. [MUSIC PLAYING] During and after the
Industrial Revolution, most of England’s
drinking water came from rivers, which
were often contaminated with sewage and garbage. Of course, sewage and
garbage river water, or what we today
call Bud Light Lime, should only be consumed
sparingly, if at all. In 1854, Dr. John Snow,
who it should be noted, knows nothing, hunted
down a pump in London that was responsible
for a particularly brutal outbreak of cholera
that struck down 500 people in only 10 days. By mapping out the deaths, he
was able to find and isolate the pump. [MUSIC PLAYING] English cities were built
around their factories, and their houses were
stacked on each other, making space at the
time extremely limited. Couple that with the
lack of modern plumbing we often take for granted,
and English streets were literally full of crap. Without toilets, the city
chose to inexplicably toss the citizens’ human excrement
casually into the streets. Alternatively, some buildings
built underground cesspools for poop and pee to hang out. But inevitably,
those would overflow, and toxic waste would
spill out onto the streets, like Philadelphia fans after
the Eagles won the Super Bowl. It hadn’t yet occurred to
the occupants of England during the Industrial Revolution
that dung in the street might be gross and
full of bacteria. But the science hadn’t caught
up to their reality yet. [MUSIC PLAYING] Despite the notably
deteriorating conditions, the UK sort of dragged
its heels to pass any meaningful legislation to
end the health crisis caused by lack of sanitation. But it wasn’t for
the lack of anybody bringing it to their attention. In 1842, reformer Edwin
Chadwick, British sanitation advocate, released a
report succinctly entitled, “Report on the Sanitary
Conditions of Laboring Population of Great Britain.” In it, he argued that the living
conditions of Britain’s poorest working class were
extremely subpar, and tied the relationship
between living in squalor and spreading disease. This pitch, however convincing,
went nowhere until 1848 with the passing of the first
British public health pact. In Chadwick’s 1842 proposal,
he presented the idea of not living in
squalor as a way to save the government some
change by knocking poor people off of government assistance. Many families at the time
relied on government funds and services after
losing family members to a myriad of
infectious diseases. To all who are watching this,
please don’t get any ideas. It would take yet another
cholera outbreak in 1848 before the government
implemented the act which included a framework
for towns to have medical doctors,
proper sewage, trash disposal, and clean drinking
water– in other words, fully functioning safe cities. With neither the money
nor the oversight to administer these
regulations, however, it was mostly meaningless
words on paper. It was ultimately up
to local jurisdictions to impose the act
in their cities. But there was nothing
to necessarily compel them to do so, assuming
that people getting cholera all the time wasn’t enough. [MUSIC PLAYING] If you remember our
Black Plague videos, it was widely accepted
that disease was spread through miasma, or bad smells. Understandable for the Middle
Ages, but a little less acceptable for
19th-century England. But that didn’t stop
them from subscribing to the miasma theory. Rather than go to the
source of the foul odors, doctors focused on
the odors themselves. Even our friend
Chadwick, who wrote some of the most important
reports in legislation about sanitation, was
a big believer in “it’s the smells that are
the real problem.” Under his watch, refuse was
dumped into the Thames River to curb the odors
plaguing London. It backfired in epic,
unfortunate fashion. After centuries of using
the river as a waste dump, one particularly
hot summer created what was known as the
Great Stink of 1858, or the 1800’s version of
Smashmouth’s “All Star.” [MUSIC PLAYING] Not one to sit back and take
it while another disease is crowned King, smallpox
also made a run for the crown with a
fun little comeback during the Industrial
Revolution. Laborers in large
cities were unaware that a vaccine for the virus
was successfully created in 1796 by Dr. Edward Jenner. And the medical community
just sort of let them stay in the dark,
doing little to advocate for vaccinations to a
vulnerable community. With that in mind,
the cramped life of a middle-class worker of this
era was catnip for smallpox. And the disease
spread like wildfire in the packed
industrial apartment complexes, sort of like mono
does today in college dorms. [MUSIC PLAYING] Child workers, already a
pretty upsetting phrase, were exposed to
hazardous materials while at work as children. Child labor was a common
practice in England during the Industrial
Revolution. Unfortunately, with kids working
up to 10 to 14 hours a day, it’s safe to assume it involved
more labor than sitting at a desk watching YouTube
while pretending to work. And this doesn’t count. This is educational, people. Working at this age led to an
excess of health and physical developmental issues. And without hygienic
or medical standards, children’s safety was
regularly disregarded by factory managers. Accidents were commonplace,
as would most likely be the case with children
working in unsafe working conditions. Some examples of jobs that
poorly paid their children employees were rat-catching, a
dream job; working coal mines– sounds easy and safe; and
cleaning factory machines in places hard to reach
for a full-sized man, sometimes with the
machine still running. It wasn’t until
1901 that Britain enabled a law that made it
illegal for any child under 12 years old to work in a
British factory, which still feels depressingly too young. [MUSIC PLAYING] Being a woman in history
has always been a gas. But during the
Industrial Revolution it was especially fun. Prostitution was a
fairly common way for working class women
to make that coin. And business during
this era was booming. With the population
climbing, the cost of living rising, and not a lot of
choices for a regular 9 to 5 stable job, becoming
a lady of the night was becoming
increasingly popular. Since these lovely
hard-working women had no access to health
care or contraception, syphilis saw an opportunity
to live its best life and thrive in the
streets of England. And England was very
uncool about it all. Sex workers were judged by
high class members of society who definitely would never pay
for sex themselves, obviously. The mere existence
of sex workers was thought of as
a disease itself that should be purged
from society, as if these hoity-toity
Brits were contributing anything more important. The Contagious
Diseases Act of 1864 allowed police officers
to specifically target women believed to
be street workers, and force them into medical
tests that, if positive, would force the woman into
confinement for months in order to heal. Men were not required
to undergo such tests, despite also being sex
workers themselves. Fortunately, thanks in large
part to a grassroots campaign by Josephine Butler, founder
of the Ladies National Association, the
public was wise enough to see through this malarkey,
and the act was overturned. [MUSIC PLAYING] During the Industrial
Revolution, arsenic was having
a real moment. This red-hot ingredient
was the Sriracha of its time, found in
everything from food and drink to wallpaper and clothing. It was even used as
medicine, presumably when the cure for the illness was
a slow and painful death. Why was this horribly
toxic substance widely used for everyday
general use, like baking powder? Well, people of the time
just didn’t know any better. They didn’t have the advances
in toxicology we now have, and arsenic was
surprisingly cheap, making it a valuable ingredient
in household products. Arsenic is a common byproduct of
burning mineral ores and coal, so factory workers
had the distinction of being doubly exposed. You working children– so lucky. Workers lacked
proper protection, worked in poorly
ventilated conditions in unregulated
factories, so it was impossible not to be
directly exposed to arsenic. [MUSIC PLAYING] For a country that
sounded desperately in need of less people, 18th
and 19th-century England were not big fans of
preventing pregnancies, with most contraceptives
unavailable to most sexually active people. Condoms did exist,
but weren’t easily accessible as, say, a gas
station or, in a pinch, your neighbor. Just like they teach you in
Alabama’s public schools, abstinence was the best way
to avoid unwanted babies. Childbirth was a dicey
medical procedure for women at this time, too, with
the maternal mortality rates at an estimated 7.5 per
1,000 women, from 1750 to 1800. With so many people
and not a lot of space, conditions were
favorable for more slums and poor sanitary
living conditions, leading to more disease. And with condoms being
impossible to get for some, venereal diseases were
having a real moment. Take a moment to thank
Durex and Purell. So what do you think of the
Industrial Revolution, [COUGHS] or [COUGHS]. Let us know in the
comments below. And while you’re
at it, check out some of these other fine
videos from our Weird History.

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