Clothes and Disease 1830- 1889

(see  for details of the conference at which this talk was presented)

A detailed look at how disease was spread through clothing, old and new, to all strata of society.

Notes from a talk by Lou Taylor.

Following 1840’s ‘Song of the Shirt’ there was a widely held belief that disease was spread through clothes.  Medical research was not widespread.  Prevalent diseases: Typhoid, Diphtheria, Diarrhoea,  Cholera, Whooping cough etc.  No-one could pinpoint contagion.

Robert Gough and Louis Pasteur introduced idea of bacteria.

Writing of the period tells us what people thought.

Henry Mayhew – Evening Chronicle, 1849 Bermandsey Tour (large % of population working class) guided by doctor, where a Barber had Scarlett Fever, then Typhus.  Child died of Cholera, wife now ill of it.  Workshop was dining room with seepage from neighbour’s privy soaking through wall.  Drinking water drawn from river.

1849 (Mayhew)  Tailor dying of consumption but his clothes and bedding pawned.  Covered with a coat, newly made, which was to go to shop the next day.

C. Kingsley 1848. Cheap, nasty clothes. When clothes pawned workers used the clothes they made to cover them at night.  Children with Cholera covered with a half-finished riding habit.

Therefore: new clothes could spread disease.

1872 John Thompson’s London features 2nd hand clothes shops and pawn shops.  Both shops could receive diseased clothes and pass them on.

Where living conditions were poor, washing almost impossible.

Mayhew, 1849.  Sheets been on beds nearly 3 months.  No clean shirt this month.  Could not afford to pay for washing.  Scarce a house without yellow linen hanging out to dry over water (stained with sulphur).

Germs could live in clothes or toys for several years.  Dead child’s toys could pass on scarlet fever.

In 17th century the plague was spread by infection in bales of cloth, especially silk.

In 1665 regulations re fumigating bedding were announced.

Pepys kept a new wig several months before wearing it because of plague.

1777 Dr Mead.  Disease could be spread through dirt in clothes, food etc.

By early 19th century cholera came to England from India.  Spread across Europe – Novogorod 1829, Poland 1831, Hamburg 1831.  College of Physicians decreed quarantine for boats carrying flax.

Oct 1831 Cholera in Sunderland.  2nd epidemic 1840s (coupled with Typhus – brought in by starving Irish settlers)

(Good book – Whimsloe: The Sources and Modes of Infection.)

Many 19th century people believed that Cholera was spread through the air.  ‘Miasma.’

Slums bred diseases, but upper class also died (Prince Albert!)  Therefore people began to think of drains.  By mid-19th century preventative measures being taken.  Limewashing and disinfection of drains.

However, the real causes of disease not known.

Lou Taylor was Senior Lecturer in Dress and Textile History at Brighton Polytechnic.  Chairman of the Textile Society and author of ‘Mourning Dress, Costume and Social History

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