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The sharp upward drift of the American hemline in the early years of this century has been variously attributed to the advent of the women's movement, moving pictures, dance halls, jazz, and--perhaps most ingeniously--Freud. (Don't repress, show some leg!) Now Nancy Tomes, a historian at SUNY Stony Brook, adds an unlikely new culprit to the list: microbes. In her provocative new history, The Gospel of Germs: Men, Women, and the Microbe in American Life (Harvard), Tomes advances the novel hypothesis that the hemline's initial retreat up the female ankle was motivated more by fear than daring. By the turn of the century, the assault against "the septic skirt" was in full swing, part of a national campaign to introduce what Tomes calls "bacteriologically informed cleanliness" into the American household.

In the 1880s, the microbe--long known but neglected by scientists--achieved new infamy as an infectious agent. No aspect of middle-class culture would ever be the same. Tomes shows how silverware, leftovers, drinking fountains, the drape-laden Victorian parlor, even facial hair came under suspicion as unwitting purveyors of filth and disease. While physicians took to the lecture circuit to rail against the microbe menace posed by the mustache, the beard, and the trailing hemline, public-health crusaders bombarded the populace with graphic images and slogans ("Sacrifice Whiskers and Save Children").

The scare tactics worked. In big cities, hygiene-minded housewives formed Rainy Day Clubs to promote dress reform--short skirts and high boots were de rigueur on germ-breeding wet days--and the clean-shaven youth soon supplanted the bearded gentleman as the icon of healthy, attractive modernity. "The revolt against the whisker has run like wild-fire over the land," gasped Harper's Weekly in 1907, while Harper's Bazaar complained that modern science's fixation on hemlines was turning fashion into "a grim demonstration of hygiene."

That the turn-of-the-century hygiene crusades yielded such dramatic results so quickly is impressive, given that the object of their wrath--the microbe--was, quite literally, invisible. It was partly this paradox that aroused Tomes's scholarly curiosity: "I was fascinated by the idea of getting so many different people to believe in something they couldn't see. Although there was a huge literature on germs in the history of medicine, no one had looked at how this notion was popularized."

Indeed, although microbes had been observed in the laboratory as early as 1680, it was not until two centuries later that physicians thought to connect them with disease. Before the 1880s, many illnesses were mistakenly thought to be caused by spontaneously generated toxins in decaying waste, a phenomenon that, though also invisible, had to its proponents an unmistakable, literally sickening stench. Thus, sewer air was regarded as a greater potential health threat than human fingers and mouths.

In retrospect, this assumption appears tragically misguided. Tomes recounts how, when President James Garfield lay dying from an assassination attempt in 1881, rumors circulated in the press that the greatest danger to the president's health was not his suppurating gunshot wound but the malodorous sewer gas emitted by the decrepit White House plumbing system. Alarmed by these reports, Garfield's aides summoned a renowned sanitation engineer to the premises. And though Garfield died shortly thereafter, his successor, Chester Arthur, was able to convince the Senate to approve $300,000 to replace the old presidential mansion with a brand-new, sanitary dwelling. (Happily for posterity, the House of Representatives balked at the idea, and the measure was killed.)

When the new germ science finally emerged victorious in the 1880s, a throng of entrepreneurs and activists was poised to exploit its findings. Largely thanks to refinements in laboratory techniques, many of them pioneered by the German physician Robert Koch, bacteria were for the first time isolated by color and shape and their behavior observed at close range. Before long, the pathogens responsible for a whole phalanx of nineteenth-century ills--including diphtheria, typhoid, scarlet fever, pneumonia, leprosy, tetanus, and gonorrhea--had been identified, and an army of evocatively named antibacterial products was available to combat them. Business for one New York City toilet-disinfectant manufacturer, the Germicide Company, proved so lucrative that within a few years its uniformed inspectors had fanned out across the northeast.

But none of the germ-science discoveries had a greater impact on public life than the identification of Mycobacterium tuberculosis, to which Tomes devotes an entire chapter. Arguably the most famous, most romantic, and most virulent of nineteenth-century diseases, tuberculosis was still a leading cause of death, particularly among young people, at the turn of the century. Despite abundant empirical evidence to the contrary, common wisdom held that the disease was hereditary in origin. A massive public education campaign was therefore essential if the disease was to be eradicated. Tomes attributes the extraordinary success of the National Tuberculosis Association not just to the powerful politicians, doctors, and philanthropists who supported it but to the group's willingness to borrow the latest gimmicks and marketing ploys from business and advertising. Games, songs, plays, billboard ads, essay contests--"The germs are the Turks," opined one winning entry--and films disguised as light entertainment were created to teach people how to cough, sweep, mop, dust, wash their hands, and blow their noses. Testimony to the association's effectiveness: By the late 1920s, cancer and heart disease had replaced infectious diseases as the leading causes of death.

Is this the lesson of America's early battles with bacteria: that the right marriage of science and civic spirit can triumph over a common natural foe? Tomes is cautiously optimistic. The new germ theory certainly made for improved public health. But it was also, she writes, a "two-edged" sword. Occasionally blacks and the poor were able to parlay the fact that "the microbe preyed upon all bodies, regardless of their racial and social characteristics" into improvements of municipal services. More often than not, however, they were obliged to play on middle-class white prejudices (such as this statement from a U.S. Public Health Service doctor in 1909: "The Negro is the disease reservoir of the South").

Sadly, the fear of contamination from unclean others is hardly a thing of the past--Tomes cites the homophobia and racism associated with the AIDS epidemic. But there is reason to hope that these prejudices will fade. Now that academic and popular interest in social and household hygiene is growing, it turns out that no place is immune to the microbe's pernicious presence. To take just one example, consider the results of a Microbial Survey of Office Coffee Cups published in a recent issue of Dairy, Food and Environmental Sanitation. According to the authors--all researchers at the University of Arizona--the average office coffee cup contains at least nine potential pathogens, including, on occasion, the dreaded E. coli. Although evidently a cause for concern, the professors venture a reassuringly familiar remedy: "Bacterial contamination of used coffee mugs can be eliminated by using a dishwasher regularly."


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