A Cry For Fresh Air by Eliot Gregory

Story type: Essay

“Once upon a time,” reads the familiar nursery tale, while the fairies, invited by a king and queen to the christening of their daughter, were showering good gifts on the baby princess, a disgruntled old witch, whom no one had thought of asking to the ceremony, appeared uninvited on the scene and revenged herself by decreeing that the presents of the good fairies, instead of proving beneficial, should bring only trouble and embarrassment to the royal infant.

A telling analogy might be drawn between that unhappy princess over whose fate so many youthful tears have been shed, and the condition of our invention-ridden country; for we see every day how the good gifts of those nineteenth century fairies, Science and Industry, instead of proving blessings to mankind, are being turned by ignorance and stupidity into veritable afflictions.

If a prophetic gentleman had told Louis Fourteenth’s shivering courtiers-whom an iron etiquette forced on winter mornings into the (appropriately named) Galerie des Glaces, stamping their silk-clad feet and blowing on their blue fingers, until the king should appear-that within a century and a half one simple discovery would enable all classes of people to keep their shops and dwellings at a summer temperature through the severest winters, the half-frozen nobles would have flouted the suggestion as an “iridescent dream,” a sort of too-good-to-be-true prophecy.

What was to those noblemen an unheard-of luxury has become within the last decade one of the primary necessities of our life.

The question arises now: Are we gainers by the change? Has the indiscriminate use of heat been of advantage, either mentally or physically, to the nation?

The incubus of caloric that sits on our gasping country is particularly painful at this season, when nature undertakes to do her own heating.

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In other less-favored lands, the first spring days, the exquisite awakening of the world after a long winter, bring to the inhabitants a sensation of joy and renewed vitality. We, however, have discounted that enjoyment. Delicate gradations of temperature are lost on people who have been stewing for six months in a mixture of steam and twice-breathed air.

What pleasure can an early April day afford the man who has slept in an overheated flat and is hurrying to an office where eighty degrees is the average all the year round? Or the pale shop-girl, who complains if a breath of morning air strays into the suburban train where she is seated?

As people who habitually use such “relishes” as Chutney and Worcestershire are incapable of appreciating delicately prepared food, so the “soft” mortals who have accustomed themselves to a perpetual August are insensible to fine shadings of temperature.

The other day I went with a friend to inspect some rooms he had been decorating in one of our public schools. The morning had been frosty, but by eleven o’clock the sun warmed the air uncomfortably. On entering the school we were met by a blast of heated air that was positively staggering. In the recitation rooms, where, as in all New York schoolrooms, the children were packed like dominoes in a box, the temperature could not have been under eighty-five.

The pale, spectacled spinster in charge, to whom we complained of this, was astonished and offended at what she considered our interference, and answered that “the children liked it warm,” as for herself she “had a cold and could not think of opening a window.” If the rooms were too warm it was the janitor’s fault, and he had gone out!

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Twelve o’clock struck before we had finished our tour of inspection. It is to be doubted if anywhere else in the world could there be found such a procession of pasty-faced, dull-eyed youngsters as trooped past us down the stairs. Their appearance was the natural result of compelling children dressed for winter weather to sit many hours each day in hothouses, more suited to tropical plants than to growing human beings.

A gentleman with us remarked with a sigh, “I have been in almost every school in the city and find the same condition everywhere. It is terrible, but there doesn’t seem to be any remedy for it.” The taste for living in a red-hot atmosphere is growing on our people; even public vehicles have to be heated now to please the patrons.

When tiresome old Benjamin Franklin made stoves popular he struck a terrible blow at the health of his compatriots; the introduction of steam heat and consequent suppression of all health-giving ventilation did the rest; the rosy cheeks of American children went up the chimney with the last whiff of wood smoke, and have never returned. Much of our home life followed; no family can be expected to gather in cheerful converse around a “radiator.”

How can this horror of fresh air among us be explained? If people really enjoy living in overheated rooms with little or no ventilation, why is it that we hear so much complaining, when during the summer months the thermometer runs up into the familiar nineties? Why are children hurried out of town, and why do wives consider it a necessity to desert their husbands?

It’s rather inconsistent, to say the least, for not one of those deserters but would “kick” if the theatre or church they attend fell below that temperature in December.

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It is impossible to go into our banks and offices and not realize that the air has been breathed again and again, heated and cooled, but never changed,-doors and windows fit too tightly for that.

The pallor and dazed expression of the employees tell the same tale. I spoke to a youth the other day in an office about his appearance and asked if he was ill. “Yes,” he answered, “I have had a succession of colds all winter. You see, my desk here is next to the radiator, so I am in a perpetual perspiration and catch cold as soon as I go out. Last winter I passed three months in a farmhouse, where the water froze in my room at night, and we had to wear overcoats to our meals. Yet I never had a cold there, and gained in weight and strength.”

Twenty years ago no “palatial private residence” was considered complete unless there was a stationary washstand (forming a direct connection with the sewer) in each bedroom. We looked pityingly on foreigners who did not enjoy these advantages, until one day we realized that the latter were in the right, and straightway stationary washstands disappeared.

How much time must pass and how many victims be sacrificed before we come to our senses on the great radiator question?

As a result of our population living in a furnace, it happens now that when you rebel on being forced to take an impromptu Turkish bath at a theatre, the usher answers your complaint with “It can’t be as warm as you think, for a lady over there has just told me she felt chilly and asked for more heat!”

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Another invention of the enemy is the “revolving door.” By this ingenious contrivance the little fresh air that formerly crept into a building is now excluded. Which explains why on entering our larger hotels one is taken by the throat, as it were, by a sickening long-dead atmosphere-in which the souvenir of past meals and decaying flowers floats like a regret-such as explorers must find on opening an Egyptian tomb.

Absurd as it may seem, it has become a distinction to have cool rooms. Alas, they are rare! Those blessed households where one has the delicious sensation of being chilly and can turn with pleasure toward crackling wood! The open fire has become, within the last decade, a test of refinement, almost a question of good breeding, forming a broad distinction between dainty households and vulgar ones, and marking the line which separates the homes of cultivated people from the parlors of those who care only for display.

A drawing-room filled with heat, the source of which remains invisible, is as characteristic of the parvenu as clanking chains on a harness or fine clothes worn in the street.

An open fire is the “eye” of a room, which can no more be attractive without it than the human face can be beautiful if it lacks the visual organs. The “gas fire” bears about the same relation to the real thing as a glass eye does to a natural one, and produces much the same sensation. Artificial eyes are painful necessities in some cases, and therefore cannot be condemned; but the household which gathers complacently around a “gas log” must have something radically wrong with it, and would be capable of worse offences against taste and hospitality.

There is a tombstone in a New England grave-yard the inscription on which reads: “I was well, I wanted to be better. Here I am.”

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As regards heating of our houses, it’s to be feared that we have gone much the same road as the unfortunate New Englander. I don’t mean to imply that he is now suffering from too much heat, but we, as a nation, certainly are.

Janitors and parlor-car conductors have replaced the wicked fairies of other days, but are apparently animated by their malignant spirit, and employ their hours of brief authority as cruelly. No witch dancing around her boiling cauldron was ever more joyful than the fireman of a modern hotel, as he gleefully turns more and more steam upon his helpless victims. Long acquaintance with that gentleman has convinced me that he cannot plead ignorance as an excuse for falling into these excesses. It is pure, unadulterated perversity, else why should he invariably choose the mildest mornings to show what his engines can do?

Many explanations have been offered for this love of a high temperature by our compatriots. Perhaps the true one has not yet been found. Is it not possible that what appears to be folly and almost criminal negligence of the rules of health, may be, after all, only a commendable ambition to renew the exploits of those biblical heroes, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego?

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