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Sanitary Behaviors (Living the Twenties #AtoZChallenge 2020)

S AtoZ Challenge 2020

Sanitary advancement was astounding in the 1920s. Many discoveries were made in that decade, but others came from the 1800s and became accessible to the wide public only in the 1920s. They affected the lives of a large part of the Western World population, changing the habits and the expectations regarding the house and the personal state. 

People became cleaner and enjoyed cleaner and healthier surroundings. More wholesome food became more readily available. Medicine made leaps in the cure of many common illnesses. 


An advertisement for Dr. Grahams Neutroid pills. 1927
An advertisement for Dr. Grahams Neutroid pills. 1927

Before WWI, most of people thought that eating a lot was sensible, even necessary. They were aware that their unbalanced diet, heavy on calories and poor of vitamins, didn’t give them all the necessary nutritious and. But only when WWI created a shortage of food, everyday eating habits started to change. People needed to eat less but better. Their diet needed to be more varied.

After the war, improved food processing methods helped sharply increase the sale of canned fruits and vegetables, as well as condensed soup, beans with pork, sugar and tomato sauce. In 1925 Clarence Birdseye discovered how to quick-freeze fresh food in cellophane packages (itself a new product). In the 1910s new methods for large-scale pasteurization made milk (which had long been risky to drink), a popular drink, and not just for infants. 

Personal cleanliness

Already in the 1800s, scientific discoveries about the role of bacteria in causing illness had called for the development of urban sanitation systems and more through personal cleanliness. But it was only after WWI (and the further medical advances that the war caused) that cleanliness became a requirement of everyday life.

Sanitary advancement was astounding in the 1920s . Discoveries made in that decade and others coming from the 1800s, changed attitudes towards clealiness #history Click To Tweet

In the 1800s and very early 1900s, hot baths were discouraged because though to be dangerous for the heath. Educationalist James Pope advised that frequent hot baths made the blood flow away from the heart and lungs. One hot bath a week sufficed for most people.

In the 1920s, the attitude toward cleanliness shifted significantly. Both body and clothes cleanliness became a standard requirement. 

As the new house appliances became more available and economical, cleanliness in the house also became a requirement. 


The 1920s were a time of passage in the field to medicine. While old beliefs and practices were still widely accepted and used, many discoveries advanced the understanding of many illnesses and their cures.

Three interns or residents at the laboratory of the First Medical Clinic in Helsinki, sometime between 1916–1920 (Helsinki University Museum)
Three interns or residents at the laboratory of
the First Medical Clinic in Helsinki, sometime
between 1916–1920 (Helsinki University

A few vaccines had been discovered in the previous decades, but it was only in the 1920s that they found practical use. In fact, throughout the decades, researchers found or advanced the cure for many diseases that previously had been potentially deadly such as tuberculosis, measles, scarlet fever, and syphilis.

The most influential of all was probably penicillin. A young French medical student, Ernest Duchesne, the first to discover the antibiotic effect of Penicillium glaucum in 1896, but the Institut Pasteur ignored his discovery. In 1928 Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming, rediscovered it, creating the penicillin, which would be the base to the cure many illnesses. 

The Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919

During the last stages of WWI, an outbreak of influenza swept the globe, killing people of every age and walk of life indiscriminately. 

It was (and it is) called the Spanish Flu, but today historians think it unlikely that it really arose in Spain. Europe was at war, all borders were close, and the censure weighted on all media. But Spain was neutral, her news system freer, and so it was there that the first cases emerged. 

In 2014, previously unknown records showed that the influenza probably emerged in China. Chinese labourers dug the trenches of WWI. The cramped, dirty, damp conditions in the trenches were optimal for the spread of the virus. Coupled with the weakened immune systems caused by malnourishment, it caused many soldiers to fall ill. Soldiers in the trenches knew it as ‘la grippe’), most got over it in about three days, if there weren’t other complications. But in the summer of 1918, several battalions went on leave and brought the undetected virus back home with them.

The virus found no barriers. It spread like wildfire from a country to another, until the entire globe was its victim. The number of dead was so high to overwhelm cemetaries and families had to dig graves for their relatives. Schools and other buildings became makeshift hospitals, where medical students took the place of the doctors still away at war. But the action of viruses was very little known at the time and even doctors didn’t know how to cure this influenza. Doctors recommended to avoid crowded places and to cover mouth and nose. But some suggested remedies such as eating cinnamon, drinking wine or even drinking Oxo’s meat drink (beef broth). 

Although it is unclear when exactly the influenza broke out, March 1918 is the most accepted date. It was only in the spring of 1919 that it finally died out.

Today it’s difficult to say how many people it killed. The severer stages manifested like a form of pneumonia that killed in two days, so the documented cause of death might be different from influenza. Historians estimate a number between 25 and 50 million of deaths.

AtoZ Book Series Banner Living the Twenties


LiveScience – Spanish flu: The deadliest pandemic in history
Virus Stanford – The Influenza Pandemic of 1918
Encyclopedia Britannica – Influenza pandemic of 1918–19 – The 1920s Medicine and Health: Overview – Nobel Prize Winning Medical Discoveries
Terra – Bathing and personal hygiene
ReduceoMania – Origines of the Craze

Kyvig, David E., Daily Life in the United States 1920-1940. How Americans Lived Through the ‘Roaring Twenties’ and the Great Depression. Ivan R. Dee Publisher, Chicago, 2002

AtoZ Challenge Living the Twenties Sanitary Behaviour
Living the Twenties Sanitary Behaviour Instagram
Living the Twenties Sanitary Behaviour Instagram Stories


  • Tarkabarka
    Posted April 22, 2020 at 10:49

    I don’t think I could live in any historical era that didn’t have hot baths…

    The Multicolored Diary

  • Shweta Suresh
    Posted April 22, 2020 at 14:07

    Kudos to you for putting so much effort into researching these posts. It’s a good thing that so much advancement had happened on all fronts. The photos and the precautions during that pandemic remind me of the current situation. Hopefully, this pandemic won’t last that long!

    • Post Author
      Posted April 28, 2020 at 17:33

      True, eh? When researching the Spanish Flu Pandemic, I was sorprised of how many things are similar, one hundred years apart.

  • Kristin
    Posted April 22, 2020 at 14:10

    We only took two baths a week when I was growing up in the 1950s.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 28, 2020 at 17:39

      I think that was quite usual even in more recent years.

  • Steven Malone
    Posted April 22, 2020 at 14:22

    My father (born 1922, the last of 7 siblings – and a WWII vet) bathed in a washtub in his kitchen, with a little heated water added in winter. Water wasn’t changed out for each person in the house. His first hot shower was in an army camp but in the fox holes showers rarely came more than monthly. Me, a boomer, had to bathe nightly. Our water heater fell just short of a miracle in his mind.

    I also get to remember standing in line outside my elementary school for the blue-stained sugar cube that saved most us from polio.

    Really liked this post, Sarah. It will add some flavor to my WIP.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 28, 2020 at 17:41

      I can imagine your ancle’s wonder. I think many people felt that way in the boom years.
      And I have a feeling we’ll feel the same in a few years, when things will change once again.

  • Keith's Ramblings
    Posted April 22, 2020 at 14:35

    Until reading this I’d never given a thought to their sanitary arrangements! I do remember my old Aunt having an outside toilet though!

    S is for …

    • Post Author
      Posted April 28, 2020 at 17:42

      I find this part of history so fascinating. How people actually live their everyday life. There are so many surprising things to learn.

  • Carrie-Anne
    Posted April 22, 2020 at 17:54

    It’s such a strange irony how the newfound obsession with being as clean and antiseptic as possible may have strongly contributed to how deadly polio became. Prior, most people may have had natural immunity or had mostly mild, non-paralytic cases, but that all changed once cleanliness and sanitation dramatically improved. Likewise, pasteurization undoubtedly contributed to the rise of the formula industry and wide-scale discouraging/stigma of breastfeeding.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 28, 2020 at 17:44

      I watched a video the other day about the obsession of cleanliness for Victorians. They did some quite incredible – and quite dangerous – things for the sake of cleanliness.

  • msjadeli
    Posted April 23, 2020 at 04:16

    25-50 million dead across the globe is hard for the mind to grasp. I hope our current virus dies out way short of that.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 28, 2020 at 17:44

      I know. I can’t imagine that many people dying. It’s already very hard to take the numbers we are having.

  • Anne Nydam
    Posted April 23, 2020 at 18:46

    Really interesting stuff!
    (Click the Blog link on the second row) : S is for Simple Simon

  • The Dream Girl
    Posted April 24, 2020 at 23:38

    It is so sad that a global pandemic had to have occurred to teach people basic cleanliness..

    My posts for the challenge can be found here:

    • Post Author
      Posted April 28, 2020 at 17:47

      Well, as antropologist Jared Diamond has famously maintained, it’s wars and plagues that have always propelled civilisation forward.

  • Ronel Janse van Vuuren
    Posted April 30, 2020 at 16:41

    I love the history lesson about cleanliness and hot baths!

    The Influenza outbreak sounds eerily similar to something happening now… History likes to repeat itself, doesn’t it?

    An A-Z of Faerie: Sirens

    • Post Author
      Posted April 30, 2020 at 21:27

      That’s very true. It was really weird to see how things changed so little in over one hundred years.

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