Why we were afraid of nighttime air until the 1900s (Wired UK)


If you’re a millennial like me, you remember the Nickelodeon
show Are You Afraid of the Dark?, in which kids
sit around a campfire (or flickering stage lights or whatever),
taking turns giving each other anxiety disorders with scary
stories. The title is a bit of a silly question, though. Everyone
is to some degree afraid of the dark, because we’re evolutionarily
programmed to be. During our tribal days, in the blackness — where
our dull senses were essentially useless — we were easy prey for
hunters of the night. Safety was with our people in a fire-lit

When civilisation progressed and we settled into homes, that
fear stuck with us. And then it gave rise to one of the stranger
and more little-known theories of Western society: Night air is

Not only was venturing into the darkness and breathing in the
evening ether terrible for your health, but so too was simply
leaving a window open at night. It was such a powerful and
pervasive myth that all the way into the early 1900s, many anxious
Americans were taking every possible measure to seal their homes
against the poisons of the evening, according to Peter Baldwin in
his essay “How Night Air Became Good Air.”

But good lord, how did it come to this? Being afraid to venture
out into the night and mingle with mountain lions and such is one
thing, but fearing the air you require to live? It turns out that
our ancestors actually did have good reason to be afraid of night
air — but not for the reasons they imagined.

The myth is a component of miasma theory, which held that “bad air”
emanating from decaying organic matter caused disease (an idea
later replaced by germ theory). This was particularly bad around
swamps, of course, and seemed to worsen at night. Said Catharine
Beecher, the great American educator: “Thus it appears, that
the atmosphere of the day is much more healthful than that of the
night, especially out of doors.”

The idea of bad night air had come over with the first
Americans. Baldwin notes a conversation between none other than
John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, who while traveling in 1776 were
forced one night to share a room in a crowded inn. “The Window was
open, and I, who was an invalid and afraid of the Air in the night
(blowing upon me), shut it close,” Adams wrote in his autobiography. But old Ben
Franklin demurred, demanding that he reopen the window, lie down,
and listen to why he was being a jackass. So Adams endured the
lecture until he fell asleep.

In arguing against the silliness of “bad air,” Ben Franklin proved that he really liked air — more so than most people


Adams was a highly educated man who would later become
president, who nevertheless believed that when the sun went down
air suddenly turned into poison. This was not, therefore, simply
superstition. Indeed, over the next century and a half, even
doctors and other educated folk propagated the myth.

For instance, Baldwin notes that in 1850 a prominent Cincinnati
physician wrote that we ought to close up our windows when we turn
in for the night. “Two effects result from” open windows, he
claimed, “first, the exclusion of malaria [from the Italian meaning
“bad air,” not the mosquito-borne disease], or the poison which
produces autumnal fever; second, the exclusion of moisture,
which in the latter part of the night, often chills the body.”

All along, though, there were dissenters. A dozen years after
that doctor’s order, one skeptic admonished his fellow Americans
who sealed their homes before retiring to bed: “The object of
people generally appears to be to shut out the pure air of heaven
— the breath of life — from bed-chambers, under the mistaken
notion that night air is injurious.”

There was, of course, the added benefit of not freezing half to
death by closing windows. Northeasterners in particular had long
suffered brutal winters, so when building practices improved and
they were gradually gifted with better insulation, they jumped at
the opportunity to hermetically seal their homes. And their fellow
countrymen in the South, who had been absolutely terrorised by all
manner of insects, were more than happy to do the same.

Cholera, as represented by a skeleton of “bad air.”


But with this came the decidedly first-world problem of
stuffiness — and an entirely new dimension to the problem of
poisonous air. With central air conditioning a long ways off,
sealed homes essentially became tombs and, some experts warned, a
health hazard. These advocates of ventilation, Baldwin writes,
argued that those obsessed with shutting out the night air entirely
“forced themselves to breathe air that was far more dangerous.”

You see, simply by exhaling we sullied the air in our homes. In
their 1869 housekeeping guide The American Woman’s Home,
Catharine Beecher (the aforementioned educator) and Harriet Beecher Stowe (author
of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) argued in no uncertain terms:
“Experiments seem to prove that other matter thrown out of the
body, through the lungs and skin, is as truly excrement and in a
state of decay as that ejected from the bowels, and as poisonous to
the animal system.”

When in Doubt, Blame the Poor!

So it seemed when it came to opening up your windows at night,
it was damned if you do, damned if you don’t. But for advocates of
ventilation, Baldwin writes, it was civilisation itself that was
part of the problem, and “the worst danger was thought to come from
crowded urban slums,” which gave off clouds of toxic air. Thus did
the well-off in the mid-1800s begin seeing the home as “a refuge
from the world, and the preferred middle-class neighbourhood was at
a distance from the tenement districts.” Ah, villainisation of the
poor. A tale as old as time.

The practice of animals feeding on blood is known as haematophagy and occurs in around 14,000 insect species


But out in the sticks, where there were no slums to worry about,
for many the principal concern remained bad night air — even all
the way up to 1918, Baldwin notes, when one textbook told of some
city folk recently visiting relatives in the country, only to find
all of the windows in their bedroom nailed shut. It was a bit of an
overreaction, sure, but these superstitious homeowners had indeed
protected themselves from what had been the problem all along:

It was never some mysterious evil of night air flowing into your
home that brought sickness, but the insects that rode in on those
drafts. Beginning in the late 1890s, according to Baldwin, we began
to make the connection between mosquitoes and diseases like malaria
and yellow fever. And so the homemaker’s defenses shifted to not
only barricade their domicile with screens — now that they knew
that it wasn’t simply air that was the problem — but to deploy all
manner of wacky anti-mosquito powders and pastes, none of which
were in any way effective.

Then the anti-mosquito campaign embraced the preemptive strike,
championed by an entomologist named L. O. Howard. He urged towns to drain marshy
ground and, no joke, dump kerosene in any standing water: cisterns,
privies, and of courseponds. Baldwin notes that “Winchester,
Virginia, was one of Howard’s early success stories: An
anti-mosquito campaign there spurred so many townspeople to apply
kerosene that ‘the town smelled like a Standard Oil tank.’” And at
the risk of blowing the entire town two miles into the sky,
mosquito populations plummeted.

Today we take a decidedly more measured approach to controlling
mosquitoes, the deadliest critters on Earth, but that isn’t to say
we aren’t getting creative with it. Some dude did, after all,
invented a laser that blasts the bugs right out of the air. So with
any luck, we’ll be able to get the better of the mosquito –
without having to nail our windows shut or turn our ponds
into lakes of fire.

This article originally appeared on Wired.com

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22 August 2014 | 10:55 am – Source: wired.co.uk

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