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By Stewart Emmens on

Now Wash Your Hands

My colleague Vicky is right. Spring is finally here. And yet… winter drags on, as the lingering winter vomiting disease continues to make its presence felt.

A family of viruses – known as the noroviruses – thrive in crowded conditions and are especially fond of schools, where pupils then take bugs home. An unpleasant scenario my young daughter and I played out a few days ago.

Avoiding it is partly down to luck. But one major defence is the good old public health maxim – ‘wash your hands after you’ve been’. While such basic hygiene seems obvious, there was a time we barely used to bother.

Public health poster from the 1950s. (Science Museum / Science & Society)

A Hungarian doctor, Ignaz Semmelweis, first highlighted the life-saving potential of hand-washing in 1847.  Like other champions of medical hygiene, such as Joseph Lister, he was initially ridiculed. Only after the acceptance of germ theory were such good practices really followed.

Hygienic habits amongst the public were also slow to catch on. Access to clean water was limited in 19th century Britain and many homes didn’t have sinks, let alone bathrooms.

The 'Optimus' water closet. (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Lavatories, like the one above, were reserved for wealthier backsides. Public toilets, when they arrived, cost money. Most people relied on unhygienic communal toilets which had to service many households. And not without reason were the Victorian masses called ‘the great unwashed’. Effective soap was a luxury until well into the 20th century.

We have examples of such products in one our smellier store cupboards. Cakes of soap still queasily fragrant nearly a century after they were made.

Cakes of soap
Cakes of soap (Stewart Emmens)

In time, good hygiene was seen as a public duty, especially in regard to washing hands. But people do need reminding.

Public health stickers
Public health stickers (Stewart Emmens)

These stickers are from the mid 20th century and were to be placed in staff toilets, especially those used by people preparing food. Because then, as now, you didn’t really want any little ‘hidden extras’ with your pie and chips.

3 comments on “Now Wash Your Hands

  1. I helped recreate a 16th century flushing toilet for “What the Tudors and Stuarts Did For Us” on BBC. Your Optimus bears a striking resemblance to the Baby Blakes used, and sometimes misused on yachts.
    I presume the Sphagnol contained moss, which does have anti-septic qualities.

  2. Another genius blog from the master. Semmelweis of course linked peurperal fever to infections and ended up topping himself as nobody paid him any attention-least of all the posh surgeons who didn’t ‘wash after delivering’ babies!

  3. Yes, with it’s adjacent plunger the ‘Optimus’ does bear more than a passing resemblance to the Baby Blake Marine Toilet well known to yacht owners everywhere. Given that Blakes have been around for many decades, the design principle must be pretty sound. Meanwhile, the ‘sphagnol soap’ glimpsed in the stores shot does indeed contain the ‘healing properties of moss’. It was particularly recommended for acne, eczema and ringworm!

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