A Sponge-Headed Cartoon Character and Staying Healthy

This post was written by Peter DeCraene, the 2020-21 Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow at the Library of Congress.

In elementary school, being assigned to clean the erasers after school was the height of responsibility. I had a teacher who also rotated the job of getting a bucket of water from the janitor’s closet to wash the desks each week. Keeping a clean classroom was a priority for my teachers, and as students start returning to their school buildings in greater numbers, the health and safety of students is clearly still a priority. But attention to cleanliness is not new, and students can explore and examine advertisements and articles from historical newspapers to learn about past practices of sanitation and hygiene and how they compare to current understandings.

In the late 19th century, Florence Nightingale convinced the British parliament of the need for hygiene and sanitation in the armed forces, Louis Pasteur researched how to stop bacterial contamination, and Joseph Lister developed methods of sterilization to prevent infections. This headline and drawing from a short article published in 1902 in Benton County, Oregon, highlights the growing attention toward how to keep children safe from germs. Present it to students and allow time for them to examine the cartoon and the text. Ask them what they notice and what they wonder about. Invite them to compare what they see to what they understand about current cleaning practices.

The Sponge May Soon Be Barred from City Schools. Corvallis Gazette, January 10, 1902

Given his recommendations about eliminating the use of porous handles for surgical instruments, Lister probably would have applauded the elimination of sponges for cleaning slates, but I doubt that he would have recommended dousing the class with formaldehyde.

New French Machine Kills Germs in Children’s Books The Detroit Times, June 9, 1909

Gretchen Dress for the Toddler. Odgen Standard, March 14, 1914

Students might explore other articles addressing ideas of health and hygiene:

  • A 1909 article in the Detroit Times discusses a machine that supposedly disinfects books. Allow time for students to study the photograph, describe how the machine might have worked, and assess its likely effectiveness, based on what is currently known about disinfecting books.
  • Good Grades and Good Health Go Together. City of Chicago Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium

    This 1914 article from Ogden City, Utah, while not directly addressing school health, does recommend the use of washable clothing for children to promote good sanitary conditions. (It also explains that children should not wear “large plaids [which] make the children nervous and fretful.”) The author also recommends that children not be allowed to lick stamps or envelopes, nor should they lick their fingers to turn the pages of books. My elementary school librarian would be pleased.

  • Laws requiring vaccinations for school enrollment were upheld in the courts in 1922, and many WPA posters in the 1930s promoted good health through vaccinations and testing for diseases such as tuberculosis.
  • The Maryland Independent, in a 1930 front page article, recommended that a student should have “his own towel at home, and if possible, at school…Our hands are the worst offenders we have as carriers of germs. To wash our hands before eating is one of our strongest means of defense.”

Students may be interested to study the history of our understanding of germs, sanitation or aseptic surgery, or they may look at ways the science around these topics has been communicated to the public. They may find and explore many more articles and illustrations in Chronicling America using terms such as “disinfect” or “germs”.

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