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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Andrew Jackson Downing, "The Favorite Poison of America," 1850

This is one of the most influential, or at least frequently cited and republished, anti-stove diatribes in ante-bellum America, from the celebrated horticulturist and architect Andrew Jackson Downing, "The Apostle of Taste" (or at least middle-class Yankee taste) -- David Schuyler, Apostle of Taste: Andrew Jackson Downing, 1815-1852 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U.P., 1996),  According to a eulogy after his untimely death by drowning following a steam-boat explosion on the Hudson, "This article, copied by numerous journals, read by thousands, and commending itself to their common sense, is fast producing a reform, conducive alike to health, comfort, and long life" -- i.e. the restoration of the open fire-place, or at least attention to the importance of ventilation.  ["Col. Wilder's Eulogy on Mr. Downing (pronounced before the Pomological Congress at Philadelphia, September 13, 1852," The Horticulturist, and Journal of Rural Art and Rural Taste 7:11 (1 Nov. 1852): 491-500 at p. 496.] 

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Andrew Jackson Downing, Rural Essays (New York: Leavitt & Allen, 1858),

XII. THE FAVORITE POISON OF AMERICA. November, 1850, pp. 278-286

[p. 278] ONE of the most complete and salutary reforms ever, perhaps, made in any country, is the temperance reform of the last fifteen years in the United States. Every body, familiar with our manners and customs fifteen or twenty years ago, very well knows that though our people were never positively intemperate, yet ardent spirits were, at that time, in almost as constant daily use, both in public and private life, as tea and coffee are now; while at the present moment, they are seldom or never offered as a means of civility or refreshment -- at least in the older States. The result of this higher civilization or temperance, as one may please to call it, is that a large amount of vice and crime have disappeared from amidst the laboring classes, while the physical as well as moral condition of those who labor too little to be able to bear intoxicating drinks, is very much improved.

We have taken this consolatory glance at this great and salutary reform of the habits of a whole country, because we need something to fortify our faith in the possibility of new reforms; for our countrymen have, within the last ten years, discovered a new poison, which is used wholesale, both in public and private, all over the country, till the national health and constitution are absolutely impaired by it.

"A national poison? Do you mean slavery, socialism, abolition, mormonism?" Nothing of the sort."Then, perhaps, tobacco, patent medicines, or coffee?" Worse than these. It is a foe more //p. 279 insidious than these; for, at least, one very well knows what one is about when he takes copious draughts of such things. Whatever his own convictions may be, he knows that some of his fellow creatures consider them deleterious.

But the national poison is not thought dangerous. Far from it. On the contrary, it is made almost synonymous with domestic comfort. Old and young, rich and poor, drink it in with avidity, and without shame. The most tender and delicate women and children are fondest of it, and become so accustomed to it, that they gradually abandon the delights of bright sunshine, and the pure air of heaven, to take it in large draughts. What matter if their cheeks become as pale as the ghosts of Ossian; if their spirits forsake them, and they become listless and languid! Are they not well housed and comfortable? Are not their lives virtuous, and their affairs prosperous? Alas, yes! But they are not the less guilty of poisoning themselves daily, though perhaps
unconscious of it all the time.

The national poison that we allude to, is nothing less than the vitiated air of close stoves, and the unventilated apartments which accompany them!

"Stoves" -- exclaim a thousand readers in the same breath -- "stoves poisonous? Nonsense! they are perfectly healthy, as well as the most economical, convenient, labor-saving, useful, and indispensable things in the world. Besides, are they not real Yankee inventions? In what country but this is there such an endless variety of stoves -- cooking stoves, hall stoves, parlor stoves, air-tight stoves, cylinders, salamanders, etc.? Why, it is absolutely the national invention -- this stove -- the most useful result of universal Yankee ingenuity."

We grant it all, good friends and readers; but must also have our opinion -- our calmly considered and carefully matured opinion --  which is nothing more nor less than this, that stoves -- as now used  --  are the national curse; the secret poisoners of that blessed air, bestowed by kind Providence as an elixir of life, -- giving us new vigor and fresh energy at every inspiration; and we, ungrateful beings, as if the pure breath of heaven were not fit for us, we reject it, and breathe instead -- what? -- the air which passes over a surface //p. 280 of hot iron, and becomes loaded with all the vapor of arsenic and sulphur, which that metal, highly heated, constantly gives off!

If in the heart of large cities -- where there is a large population crowded together, with scanty means of subsistence -- one saw a few persons driven by necessity into warming their small apartments by little close stoves of iron, liable to be heated red-hot, and thereby to absolutely destroy the purity of the air, one would not be so much astonished at the result, because it is so difficult to preserve the poorest class from suffering, in some way or other, in great cities. But it is by no means only in the houses of those who have slender means of subsistence, that this is the case. It is safe to say that nine-tenths of all the houses in the northern States, whether belonging to rich or poor, are entirely unventilated, and heated at the present moment by close stoves

It is absolutely a matter of preference on the part of thousands, with whom the trifling difference between one mode of heating and another is of no account. Even in the midst of the country, where there is still wood in abundance, the farmer will sell that wood and buy coal, so that he may have a little demon -- alias a black, cheerless close stpve -- in the place of that genuine, hospitable, wholesome friend and comforter, an open wood fireplace.

And in order not to leave one unconverted soul in the wilderness, the stove inventors have lately brought out "a new article," for forest countries, where coal is not to be had either for love or barter -- an "air-tight stove for burning wood." The seductive, convenient, monstrous thing! "It consumes one-fifth of the fuel which was needed by the open chimney -- is so neat and clean, makes no dust, and gives no trouble." All quite true, dear, considerate housewife -- all quite true; but that very stove causes your husband to pay twice its savings to the family doctor before two winters are past, and gives you thrice as much trouble in nursing the sick in your family, as you formerly spent in taking care of the fire in your chimney corner, --  besides depriving you of the most delightful of all household occupations.

Our countrymen generally have a vast deal of national pride, and national sensitiveness, and we honor them for it. It is the warp and woof, out of which the stuff of national improvement is woven, //p. 281 When a nation has become quite indifferent as to what it has done, or can do, then there is nothing left but for its prophets to utter lamentations over it.

Now there is a curious but indisputable fact (somebody must say it), touching our present condition and appearance, as a nation of men, women and children, in which we Americans compare most unfavorably with the people of Europe, and especially with those of northern Europe -- England and France, for example. It is neither in religion or morality, law or liberty. In these great essentials, every American feels that his country is the birthplace of a larger number of robust and healthy souls than any other. But in the bodily condition, the signs of physical health, and all that constitutes the outward aspect of the men and women of the United States, our countrymen, and especially countrywomen, compare most unfavorably with all but the absolutely starving classes, on the other side of the Atlantic. So completely is this the fact, that, though we are unconscious of it at home, the first thing (especially of late years) which strikes an American, returning from abroad, is the pale and sickly countenances of his friends, acquaintances, and almost every one he meets in the streets of large towns, -- every other man looking as if he had lately recovered from a fit of illness. The men look so pale and the women so delicate, that his eye, accustomed to the higher hues of health, and the more vigorous physical condition of transatlantic men and women, scarcely credits the assertion of old acquaintances, when they assure him that they were "never better in their lives."

With this sort of impression weighing disagreeably on our mind, on returning from Europe lately, we fancied it worth our while to plunge two hundred or three hundred miles into the interior of the State of New-York. It would be pleasant, we thought, to see, not only the rich forest scenery opened by the new railroad to Lake Erie, but also (for we felt confident they were there) some good, hearty, fresh-looking lads and lasses among the farmers' sons and daughters.

We were for the most part disappointed. Certainly the men, especially the young men, who live mostly in the open air, are healthy and robust. But the daughters of the farmers -- they are as //p. 282 delicate and pale as lilies of the valley, or fine ladies of the Fifth Avenue. If one catches a glimpse of a rose in their cheeks, it is the pale rose of the hot-house, and not the fresh glow of the garden damask. Alas, we soon discovered the reason. They, too, live for seven months of the year in unventilated rooms, heated by close stoves! The fireplaces are closed up, and ruddy complexions have vanished with them. Occasionally, indeed, one meets with an exception; some bright-eyed, young, rustic Hebe, whose rosy cheeks and round, elastic figure would make you believe that the world has not all grown "delicate;" and if you inquire, you will learn, probably, that she is one of those whose natural spirits force them out continually, in the open air, so that she has, as yet, in that way escaped any considerable doses of the national poison.

Now that we are fairly afloat on this dangerous sea, we must unburthen our heart sufficiently to say, that neither in England nor France does one meet with so much beauty -- certainly not, so far as charming eyes and expressive faces go towards constituting beauty  --  as in America. But alas, on the other hand, as compared with the elastic figures and healthful frames abroad, American beauty is as evanescent as a dissolving view, contrasting with a real and living landscape. What is with us a sweet dream, from sixteen to twenty-five, is there a permanent reality till forty-five or fifty.

We should think it might be a matter of climate, were it not that we saw, as the most common thing, even finer complexions in France -- yes, in the heart of Paris, and especially among the peasantry, who are almost wholly in the open air -- than in England. And what, then, is the mystery of fine physical health, which is so much better understood in the old world than the new?

The first transatlantic secret of health, is a much longer time passed daily in the open air, by all classes of people; the second, the better modes of heating and ventilating the rooms in which they live.

Regular daily exercise in the open air, both as a duty and a pleasure, is something looked upon in a very different light on the two different sides of the Atlantic. On this side of the water, if a person -- say a professional man, or a merchant -- is seen regularly devoting a certain portion of the day to exercise, and the preservation of 'his bodily powers, he is looked upon as a valetudinarian, --  //p. 283 an invalid, who is obliged to take care of himself, poor soul! and his friends daily meet him with sympathizing looks, hoping he "feels better," etc. As for ladies, if there is not some object in taking a walk, they look upon it as the most stupid and unmeaning thing in the world.

On the other side of the water, a person who should neglect the pleasure of breathing the free air for a couple of hours, daily, or should shun the duty of exercise, is suspected of slight lunacy; and ladies who should prefer continually to devote their leisure to the solace of luxurious cushions, rather than an exhilarating ride or walk, are thought a little tˆte mont. What, in short, is looked upon as a virtue there, is only regarded as a matter of fancy here. Hence, an American generally shivers, in an air that is only grateful and bracing to an Englishman, and looks blue in Paris, in weather when the Parisians sit with the casement windows of their saloons wide open. Yet it is, undoubtedly, all a matter of habit; and we Yankees, (we mean those of us not forced to "rough it,") with the toughest natural constitutions in the world, nurse ourselves, as a people, into the least robust and most susceptible physiques in existence.

So much for the habit of exercise in the open air. Now let us look at our mode of warming and ventilating our dwellings; for it is here that the national poison is engendered, and here that the ghostly expression is begotten.

However healthy a person may be, he can neither look healthy nor remain in sound health long, if he is in the habit of breathing impure air. As sound health depends upon pure blood, and there can be no pure blood in one's veins if it is not repurified continually by the action of pure air upon it, through the agency of the lungs (the whole purpose of breathing being to purify and vitalize the blood ), it follows, that if a nation of people will, from choice, live in badly ventilated rooms, nil! of impure air, they must become pale and sallow in complexions. It may not largely affect the health of the men, who are more or less called into the open air by their avocations, but the health of women (ergo the constitutions of children), and all those who are confined to rooms or offices heated in this way, must gradually give way under the influence of the poison. Hence, the delicacy of thousands and tens of thousands of the sex in America.

p. 284 "And how can you satisfy me," asks some blind lover of stoves," that the air of a room heated by a close stove is deleterious? " Very easily indeed, if you will listen to a few words of reason.

It is well established that a healthy man must have about a pint of air at a breath; that he breathes above a thousand times in an hour; and that, as a matter beyond dispute, he requires about fifty-seven hogsheads of air in twenty four hours.

Besides this, it is equally well settled, that as common air consists of a mixture of two gases, one healthy (oxygen), and the other unhealthy (nitrogen), the air we have once breathed, having, by passing through the lungs, been deprived of the most healthful gas, is little less than unmixed poison (nitrogen).

Now, a room warmed by an open fireplace or grate, is necessarily more or less ventilated, by the very process of combustion going on; because, as a good deal of the air of the room goes up the chimney, besides the smoke and vapor of the fire, a corresponding amount of fresh air comes in at the windows and door crevices to supply its place. The room, in other words, is tolerably well supplied with fresh air for breathing.

But let us take the case of a room heated by a close stove. The chimney is stopped up, to begin with. The room is shut up. The windows are made pretty tight to keep out the cold; and as there is very little air carried out of the room by the stove-pipe, (the stove is perhaps on the air-tight principle, -- that is, it requires the minimum amount of air,) there is little fresh air coming in through the crevices to supply any vacuum. Suppose the room holds 300 hogsheads of air. If a single person requires 57 hogsheads of fresh air per day, it would last four persons but about twenty-four hours, and the stove would require half as much more. But, as a man renders noxious as much again air as he expires from his lungs, it actually happens that in four or five hours all the air in this room has been either breathed over, or is so mixed with the impure air which has been breathed over, that it is all thoroughly poisoned, and unfit for healthful respiration. A person with his senses un-blunted, has only to go into an ordinary unventilated room, heated by a stove, to perceive at once, by the effect on the lungs, how dead, stifled, and destitute of all elasticity the air is.

p. 285 And this is the air which four-fifths of our countrymen and countrywomen breathe in their homes,-not from necessity, but from choice.*

This is the air which those who travel by hundreds of thousands in our railroad cars, closed up in winter, and heated with close stoves, breathe for hours -- or often entire days. **

This is the air which fills the cabins of closely packed steamboats, always heated by large stoves, and only half ventilated; the air breathed by countless numbers -- both waking or sleeping.

This is the air -- no, this is even salubrious compared with the air -- that is breathed by hundreds and thousands in almost all our crowded lecture-rooms, concert-rooms, public halls, and private assemblies, all over the country. They are nearly all heated by stoves or furnaces, with very imperfect ventilation, or no ventilation at all.

Is it too much to call it the national poison, this continual atmosphere of close stoves, which, whether travelling or at home, we Americans are content to breathe, as if it were the air of Paradise?

We very well know that we have a great many readers who abominate stoves, and whose houses are warmed and ventilated in an excellent manner. But. they constitute no appreciable fraction of the vast portion of our countrymen who love stoves -- fill their houses with them -- are ignorant of their evils, and think ventilation and fresh air physiological chimeras, which may be left to the speculations of doctors and learned men.

* We have said that the present generation of stove-reared farmers' daughters are pale and delicate in appearance. We may add that the most healthy and blooming looking American women, are those of certain families where exercise, and fresh air, and ventilation, are matters of conscience and duty here as in Europe.

** Why the ingenuity of clever Yankees has not been directed to warming railroad cars (by means of steam conveyed through metal tubes, running under the floor, and connected with flexible coupling pipes,) we cannot well understand. It would be at once cheaper than the present mode, (since waste steam could be used,) and far more wholesome. Railroad cars have, it is true, ventilators at the top for the escape of foul air, but no apertures in the floor for the inlet of fresh air! It is like emptying a barrel without a vent.

p. 286 And so, every other face that one meets in America, has a ghostly paleness about it, that would make a European stare.*

What is to be done? "Americans will have stoves." They suit the country, especially the new country; they are cheap, labor-saving, clean. If the more enlightened and better informed throw them aside, the great bulk of the people will not. Stoves are, we are told, in short, essentially democratic and national.

We answer, let us ventilate our rooms, and learn to live more in the open air. If our countrymen will take poison in, with every breath which they inhale in their houses and all their public gatherings, let them dilute it largely, and they may escape from a part at least of the evils of taking it in such strong doses.

We have not space here to show in detail the best modes of ventilating now in use. But they may be found described in several works, especially devoted to the subject, published lately. In our volume on COUNTRY HOUSES, we have briefly shown, not only the principles of warming rooms, but the most simple and complete modes of ventilation, -- from Arnott's chimney valve, which may for a small cost be easily placed in the chimney flue of any room, to Emerson's more complete apparatus, by which the largest apartments, or every room in the largest house, may be warmed and ventilated at the same time, in the most complete and satisfactory manner.

We assure our readers that we are the more in earnest upon this subject, because they are so apathetic. As they would shake a man about falling into that state of delightful numbness which precedes freezing to death, all the more vigorously in proportion to his own indifference and unconsciousness to his sad state, so we are the more emphatic in what we have said, because we see the national poison begins to work, and the nation is insensible.

Pale countrymen and countrywomen, rouse yourselves! Consider that GOD has given us an atmosphere of pure, salubrious, health-giving air, 45 miles high, and -- ventilate your houses.

* We ought not, perhaps, to include the Germans and Russians. They also love stoves, and the poison of bad air indoors, and therefore have not the look of health of other European nations, though they live far more in the open air than we do.

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Downing evidently lived according to his own precepts.  As a visitor to his celebrated country house at Newburgh, NY, recalled, "In the winter the family forsook the fine south room, which, on account of its size was not easily warmed, and lived in the library, which, with its cheerful fire and books and busts, became the gathering point of the household, and the chosen seat of the winter's evening mirth and daily study."  Even in his office Downing enjoyed the luxury of "the bright wood fire [which] warms body and soul with its crackling flames." He believed "that men in America are too much absorbed in business, and make it too unlovely.  American men in cities, and those in the country who are not in the open air when at their work, labor from sunrise to sunset in ugly, dark, ill-ventilated rooms, stewing their minds over interminable rows of figures, and their bodies over unhealthy stoves and so year after year until the day is past for the active enjoyment of their money, and the long abused body takes its fair revenge."  [C.C., "A Visit to the House and Garden of the Late A.J. Downing," The Horticulturist, and Journal of Rural Art and Rural Taste vol. 3 n.s., no. 1 (Jan. 1853), pp. 21-27 at p. 21, and reminiscences of Downing in "Editor's Table," pp. 103-4 at p. 103,].  Downing was not an anti-modernist.  He just hated stoves, and was an enthusiast for a more modern (and expensive) form of space heating than the common air-tight or even the basement furnace, by steam or hot water piped from a boiler or perhaps from the waste heat of a kitchen stove -- "Warming & Ventilating Houses," The Horticulturist, and Journal of Rural Art and Rural Taste 7:5 (1 May 1852): 217-8.