© Published at Leipzig, 1795
I lately paid a visit to one of my relations. Our conversation soon turned upon my favorite subject, children. My fair cousin (her husband very properly left her to speak) talked like a book about physical education, and made me very desirous to see her young family. She led me to the corridor at the back of the house that abutted on the courtyard, and opened the door of a dark, low receptacle full of disgusting smells, which she informed me was her nursery.
A steaming tub in which dirty linen was soaking stood in the front of the room, surrounded by some low washerwomen, whose unmannerly chattering polluted the ear, as the vapour from the dirty hot water did the lungs. The steam condensed into drops ran down the window panes.
I expressed to my fair cousin my incredulity as to the utility of this arrangement, and hinted how much the emanations from the clothes that were being washed must deteriorate the air the little ones had to breathe, how the excessive humidity thereby engendered, relaxed all the fibres of our bodies, and must consequently be doubly injurious to children of a tender age.
“Do you really mean to say,” cried she, “that washing causes any pollution? I’m sure I see no dirt made by it and a little moisture can’t do much harm.”
“I allude to the invisible, but very injurious, deterioration of the air, the bad effects of which on such delicate creatures as children are, you must have heard of.”
“Oh,” she replied, “I fumigate occasionally with juniper berries, and they soon remove all impurities.”
I now perceived that a learned demonstration of the difference betwixt the properties of azotic gas and pure oxygen, although they differ but slightly in odour, and not at all in appearance, would have been quite incomprehensible to my dear cousin, nor could I hope to make her understand how a prolonged sojourn in impure air acted as a slow poison on animal life, especially at a tender age, and how impossible it was that children could enjoy even tolerable health in such an atmosphere, and so forth. Neither did I venture to speak of the quantity of humidity that was imperceptibly taken up by the warm air of the room from the scalding water, and equally imperceptibly absorbed by the open mouths of the absorbent vessels in the child’s soft body, whereby the natural exhalations were obstructed. Nor did I attempt to prove to her by the syllogysm in Barbara, though I had it on my scholastic tongue, that fumigation with juniper berries and such-like things would rather tend to phlogisticate and deteriorate the air, but could never transform the impure air into vital gas.
However, as I have said, I luckily suppressed my spirit of logical refutation that was about to burst forth, and endeavoured to bring forward some argumentum ad hominem. “lt is possible,” I said, “that I may be mistaken, and that you, my esteemed cousin, contrary to all expectation, are in the right in supposing that the frequent repetition of a washing festival in a nursery, together with the exhalations that arise from the blankets hung to dry near the stove there, may be without any unfavourable influence on the health of children, and I shall give up my point at once when you produce me your dear little children, who doubtless are very lively and stout.”
“Produce them,” she replied, “I cannot, but you may see them yourself back there. I don’t know what ails my poor Freddy, yonder; he is nine years old, but cannot walk well without his crutches.” At these words a little miserable looking figure crawled towards us with difficulty. His knees were bent inwards, and his legs completely destitute of muscle. His head drawn backwards, stuck betwixt his shoulders; his face was pale and withered; his eyes dull, but projecting beyond the prominent forehead. His large ears stuck out; his nostrils were expanded; his broad tongue always hung partially out of his half-open mouth. His emaciated arms could scarcely support him on his crutches. He soon returned panting to his little arm-chair, to rest himself after this slight exertion.
I involuntarily shrugged my shoulders, and heaved a deep sigh. A mixed feeling of gratitude to God and proofed pity took possession of me, as I called my own rosy checked Fritz to my side and bade him shake hands with this innocent victim of a false and injurious method of bringing up children. My little urchin kissed this poor object affectionately, and asked him what was it he drank out of the large jug beside him. “My afternoon coffee ” was his reply, and at the same time he poured out a cup for my boy, who, however, refused it, as he was not in the habit of drinking things he was not acquainted with.
“You do not seem to approve of that,” said my cousin, “but what else can the child drink, it is the only thing that seems to do him good; he cannot enjoy any thing else.” “Do him good ?” I hastily asked, in a paroxysm of half-suppressed, but extreme anger – and I turned away from the odious sight. Oh! what an inclination I felt to give this unhappy mother a severe lecture, and to show her that a drink which sets our blood in agitation, whilst it exaIts the irritability of our muscular fibre to such a degree as in course of time to render it quite lax, and to weaken it so that it trembles – which gradually exhausts our vital heat – which, possessing no nutritive properties in itself, unnaturally stifles hunger and thirst, and which communicates a false overstrained liveliness to its votaries, who are often reduced to the last stage of weakness, that like a transient intoxication leaves behind it an opposite state of the nervous system, – how injurious such a drink must be for the delicate child, endowed as it is with great irritability, and how impossible it is that such a badly treated creature can become anything but rachitic and cachectic in the last degree – a shriveled diminutive of a human being, for whom death were the most desirable lot.
With all these evident truths I should have wished to fan the smouldering spark of a mother’s love in her breast, but I refrained from so doing because it occurred to me that coffee was the favourite beverage of mamma herself, so suppressing my feelings, I mildly gave her to understand that in my opinion coffee should only be an occasional beverage of persons above forty years of age, or employed in certain cases as a medicine.”
“I suppose, my censorious cousin,” was her reply, “you would be for depriving the little creature yonder at the table of her favourite food?” lt was some kind of confectionery which the girl three years old who could not stand on her legs and could not be taught to walk, was swallowing with a degree of greediness that excited my disgust and horror. This pale, bloated creature had a rattling at the chest, slavered at the mouth, had a dull look, a projecting abdomen, and, as I learned, little sleep, and a perpetual diarrhoea, whereby, my cousin assured me, all impurities of the body, were discharged.
I begged her to try whether she herself would remain in good health if she were constantly eating sweet things, and if she would not get sour eructations, worms, deficient or excessive appetite and diarrhoea, and if so, how much more the delicate stomach of a child who was incapable of taking exercise, and in whom there was a natural tendency to acidity. This seemed to make some impression on her, especially when I begged her to try the strength of my homemade vinegar, which was made of sugar and yeast alone.
“I wish you would advise me what to do for the miserable skeleton yonder in the cradle at the side of the stove; it has constant cold sweats, it does not sleep, and is always crying as if it were on the rack. lt has fits occasionally. I wish God would mercifully take it to himself, its sufferings are so heartrendering to witness. I have already buried three boys, peace be with them! They all died teething. The little fellow has been about his teeth these three months and he is always putting his little hands to his mouth. I only trust he has not got into this state from the evil eye of some bad people, as my mother in law confidently asserts must be the case; it was she tied the scarlet rags round its little hands They are said to be good for bewitchment. She also often fumigates with nine kinds of wood.”
“What harm,” I replied, “could the poor innocent child have done to the bad people? Where are these bad people that possess the power to make ill by a few words a healthy child fed moderately on wholesome food and strengthened by exercise in the open air and cleanliiess? I am perfectly convrnced,” I continued, with some bitterness, caused by the sight of so much misery, “I am convinced that if you left off letting the poor child suck such a quantity of chewed bread from that bag, whereby its stomach is made sour and overloaded, if you would clean and dry it often enough so that all the stench I observe about its cradle were removed, if you would not cover it up so warm, would wash it all over every day with cold water and take it away from the unnatural heat of the stove, if you would send it, or, better, take it yourself frequently into the open air, would never give it unwholesome food, nor overload its stomach with the most wholesome – the little creature might still be able to enjoy life. It would not have to whine so much at all the misery you heap upon it and which you attribute to teething and witchcraft. It would become healthy and lively, in a word it would be to you a source of joy, and not as now, one of sorrow. Believe me, teething diseases are almost impossible, almost unheard of among quite healthy children; this name is a mere invention of ignorant persons, and is applied by them to children’s diseases which they know nothing about, and the blame of which they lay upon nature, whereas they are in reality the fault of the mothers, the nurses and the doctors! None of my six children have manifested any serious illness when cutting their teeth. When I looked into their mouths I usually found their teeth as I expected, planted along their gums in an even row. Why do we hear those everlasting complaints about the pretended teething diseases of children, for which we have ourselves to blame?”
I went on in my overflowing zeal to give her to understand, in the most decided manner, what a poisonous atmosphere the air of this low, dark, hot room was, filled as it was with exhalations of all kinds, and so often with the emanations from the dirty clothes washed in it – how well children were worth the trouble of giving them a roomy, high, bright, frequently aired and extremely clean room to stay in during those hours of the day which they do not spend in the open air, which is quite indispensable for little children.
“Come, Fritz,” I added, “let us quit this wretched children’s hospital and clear our lungs in the autumnal breeze outside from this bad air. God will provide for these helpless children in the cold earth, including the poor cripple whose sad state causes your tears to flow. Come away!”
My cousin was much affected, wished to have more advice from me, wished to thank me, and so forth. But I hastily took my leave, exclaiming that she had got quite enough to do for the present if she made those changes which my compassionate zeal had induced me to suggest, and away I went with my stout and healthy little Fritz.