1920 Tips to Prevent Spreading Disease

Woman drinking from a cup.
Source; Household Arts for Home and School (Cooley & Spohr, 1920)

During this cold and flu season, I frequently see tips for staying healthy. A hundred years ago people also want to avoid spreading diseases. Here is a list in a 1920 home economics textbook of precautions to take against infection and spreading disease:

  1. Use individual towels, combs, brushes, and clothing.
  2. Use individual drinking cups.
  3. Do not put fingers or hands to the mouth or face.
  4. Do not put money, pencils, pins, or anything else but food and drink into the mouth.
  5. Use a handkerchief to cover a sneeze or cough.
  6. Do not carry a handkerchief in the hand or leave it lying about. Put it where it will not be seen.
  7. Use gauze or clothes that may be burned when you have a cold; then burn them after use.
  8. Never kiss anyone on the mouth.
  9. Never spit on the floor of any building, or on the sidewalk.
  10. Avoid crowds of all kinds when there is an epidemic.
  11. Isolate yourself when there is an epidemic.
  12. Disinfect all dishes, clothing and other things which have been used by a person who had had a contagious disease.

Source: Household Arts for Home and School (Vol. II) (1920) by Anna M. Cooley & Wilhelmina H. Spohr

61 thoughts on “1920 Tips to Prevent Spreading Disease

    1. “Wow – # 7 seems a bit extreme! (The days before automatic washers and dryers.)”

      Makes me think of the story The Velveteen Rabbit, which makes me sad even to recall.

        1. I’d forgotten about that story. Thanks for sharing the link to the summary. I think that I’m a little sentimental. It is so sad. However, The Velveteen Rabbit does makes it clear that a hundred years ago – the book was published in 1922 – that people did burn items made of cloth that had been in contact with someone who had been ill. So maybe Recommendation #7 wasn’t that extreme.

    2. I agree that burning clothes seems a bit extreme. It seems like they could have boiled the clothes if they wanted to sanitize them – though maybe that is also a bit extreme.

    1. Thank goodness we don’t do that anymore. I never really thought about it, but my general sense is that the washer and dryer eliminate any germs on clothes.

  1. The suggestions have held up over time. I am very glad that tissues are used now and not handkerchiefs. We can also wash clothes with germ killing detergent. Burning them seems a bit extreme. I’m surprised they did not say to burn sheets and pillows.

  2. “Use individual drinking cups.”

    1920 was right at the tail end of the “common cup” era. Lots of small town drinking fountains up until the teens had a cup chained to them for users . . .any user. . . .

    There’s been a vigorous public health campaign to stop that.

    1. Similarly to you, I’ve seen articles in newspapers from the 1910’s which strongly opposed the use of a common cup on trains and in other public places.

  3. My parents were born in the 20’s and I always remember their little glasses on each side of the kitchen sink. I thought it silly. Now that I work in a petrie dish and hand wash all my dishes, I see the wisdom.

  4. Something I’ll note that’s not there is “don’t shake people’s hands”.

    It must be just too much of a custom.

    I’ll confess, it’s a custom I hate. I have to do it all the time but I really don’t like it at all and during cold and flu season I’ll be in places all the time where I hear people coughing and sneezing, but the handshaking goes on, although people who are sick decline to do it more than they used to.

    1. My general sense is that handshaking may be becoming a little less popular than it once was. Among my peers, I’ve noticed that fewer people shake hands and more give hugs when they meet someone.

  5. I was especially interested in #11 — “isolate yourself during an epidemic.” Self isolation is back in the news, thanks to COVID-19, but I’m old enough to remember epidemics of measles, scarlet fever, and whooping cough, and houses with notices in the front windows that the homes were under quarantine. My mother remembered smallpox, for heaven’s sake. The anti-vaxxers drive me crazy. Most of them are so young and so impervious to what disease truly can do to a community that they just can’t appreciate how good we have it. (See: polio)

    1. 10 and 11 seemed redundant to me. Did you see a difference based on your experience?
      My only memories are of the opposite: we have chicken pox! Come over and play!

      1. I think of isolation/quarantine as being much like a hospital isolation ward. When we were quarantined, the isolation would be complete; only family members, doctors, etc. would be allowed into the house. Isolation was a result of illness in a particular person or persons.

        On the other hand, avoiding crowds is a way to decrease the chances of becoming ill. I’m convinced I’ve been really sick only two or three times in the past thirty years because I work by myself out on the docks. Most of my friends and family who work in offices, schools, and so on, are ill much more than I am.

        So, I guess the short answer is that I think of isolation/quarantine as a response to illness, and avoidance as a way of preventing illness.

        1. I recently quit the corporate life and took my younger child out of daycare. Reducing the potential carrier of illness by 50% in our home has done wonders for our health this winter.
          When I worked from home I so rarely got sick. Required presence in an office had me sick more often than not. Layering on kids in daycare and I was ill almost constantly for years. I’m on week three in a row of health for the first time since last summer and it’s feeling great.

        2. You must have a good immune system. It makes sense to me that isolation/quarantine can be defined as a response to illness, and avoidance can be defined as a way of preventing illness.

      2. I also remember people wanting their children to be exposed to chicken pox so they’d get it. I guess that it is a much less serious illness than scarlet fever and some of the other diseases that they needed to worry about in the days before vaccinations.

    1. I agree washing and disinfecting the clothes makes a lot more sense to me than burning them. I wonder if washing clothes in hot water, and then drying them in a dryer sanitizes them.

  6. My little brother had Scarlet Fever around the late 1940’s and our house was quaranteened. I remember feeling lonely. No school…no friends allowed in…but it was soon over and he was well and I never got it.

    But I wonder about gauze clothes! Or where I would burn them or my real clothes. Must remember to keep an outfit back to go shopping in just in case.

    Most of the ideas still hold true today. A fascinating post. Thanks for sharing.

  7. This is an excellent list you found, Sheryl, and how interesting it is to see that not much has changed since then in how we keep contagious diseases at bay. Only the gauze item is different.

    1. I wonder if they were using gauze as handkerchiefs, or maybe they were using the gauze to cover Vicks Vapor Rub or other ointments that were put on the chest to reduce congestion.

  8. One of my favorite kids’ books “Betsy, Tacy and Tib” features a quarantine for diptheria. My mother who lived in Buffalo was taken to the country every summer to avoid polio. These anti-vaccine people make me nuts!

  9. Pretty sound advice – written before antibiotics, for sure. Reminds me of the Jane Austen novels when people would be stranded at other people’s houses for days because of a cold. They took them much more seriously back then!

    1. It’s amazing how many of the tips still seem appropriate. They had a better understanding a hundred years ago of how illness spreads than what I’d realized prior to reading these recommendations.

  10. Still some good advice for now a day. Not sure why they burnt clothes after a cold… if one had leprosy, clothes were to be burnt . I do burnt my Kleenex tissues after use.

    1. It also makes we think, even though medical knowledge wasn’t advanced as it is today, that people a hundred-years-ago had a good basic understanding of good hygiene and sanitation.

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