I recently came across a charming little medical book aimed at children, and first published in Germany in the 18th century. Its author, Bernhard Christoph Faust, was personal physician to an obscure German nobleman, the Count of Schaumburg-Lippe in lower Saxony. In 1792 he published Catechism of Health, a short work which uses the question-and-answer form of the Christian catechism to teach children about their bodies and how to keep them healthy. His aim was clearly to sell the book to every school in Germany. He begins with an address to schoolteachers:
This Book teaches how Man from his infancy ought to live, in order to enjoy a perfect State of Health, which, as Sirach says, is better than gold. You will, therefore, with pleasure, I hope, instruct your dear little Pupils in its principles; and as able and experienced Men, convinced that the mere learning of the Answers by heart can be of no advantage to Children, you will have no objection to instruct them after the following method. 1. The Chapter which is chosen for Instruction ought first to be read by the Master, and then by two Children that read perfectly well and distinct; one of them reading the Questions, the other the Answers regularly and in order to the end of the Chapter; the Master, understanding thoroughly what has been read, explains its general import… An hour, at least, twice a week, ought to be devoted to such Instruction, in order that the whole CATECHISM of HEALTH may be gone through twice a year, and the minds of the Children impressed with the true spirit of its doctrine.
Two hours a week seems optimistic; but Herr Faust cannot be faulted for his ambition. And it paid off: the book sold 80,000 copies in the first two years, and was soon translated into several other languages. Faust even sent a copy to George Washington, with an obsequious covering letter recommending its use in the schools of the newly-founded United States:
I deemed these books worthy of being laid before you, and through you before the United States of America.
An American edition duly appeared, complete with a foreword by the founding father Benjamin Rush, one of the country’s leading physicians. The Catechism in fact contains a good deal of sensible advice, and you can see why the architects of the USA might have been attracted to it: it encourages self-reliance, virtue and abstinence – just the sort of values a young nation might want to inculcate in its children. Some of Faust’s views are decidedly progressive: he is emphatically in favour of equal education for both sexes, and condemns corsets and other forms of female dress that constrict the internal organs.
That said, Faust obviously had a few hobbyhorses, and sections of the book make amusing reading today. The chapter devoted to clothing was one that made me smile:
Q. By what means does man preserve, particularly in his infancy, the genial warmth of his body?
A. By good wholesome food and bodily exercise.
Q. Is it necessary to keep children warm, and protect them against the inclemency of the weather, by many garments ?
Q. Why so?
A. That the body may grow healthy and strong, and be less liable to disease.
Q. How ought the heads of children to be kept ?
A. Clean and cool.
B. Is it good to cover children’s heads with caps and hats to keep them warm ?
A. No; it is very bad; the hair is a sufficient protection against cold.
Q. Are those artificial coverings dangerous and hurtful?
A. Yes; children are thereby rendered simple and stupid, breed vermin, become scurfy, full of humours, and troubled with aches in their heads, ears, and teeth.
Q. What kind of caps are, therefore, the most dangerous?
A. The woollen, cotton, and fur caps.
Q. How, then, ought the heads of children to be kept ?
A. Boys, as well as girls, ought to remain uncovered, winter or summer, by day and by night.
Lower Saxony has a temperate climate and rarely drops much below freezing in winter; one wonders how the children of colder parts of Europe and the US felt about this advice.
Q. How ought, therefore, children, male as well as female, to be dressed from the beginning of the third to the end of the seventh or eighth year?
A. Their heads and necks must be free and bare, the body clothed with a wide shirt and frock, with short sleeves; the feet covered only with a pair of socks to be worn in the shoes; the shoes ought to be made without heels, and to fit well.
Q. What benefit will be derived from this kind of dress ?
A. The body will become healthier, stronger, taller, and more beautiful; children will learn the best and most graceful attitudes; and will feel themselves very well and happy in this simple and free garment.
OBSERVATION That by the general introduction of this simple and easy dress, the human race would be benefited, and rendered every way more accomplished, it cannot be doubted. It is, therefore, to be hoped that it will be generally adopted.
Given Faust’s obvious commercial instinct I would not be surprised to learn that he owned a business making children’s smocks. He concludes the chapter with this gem:
Q. Is it advisable to wear clothes that have been worn by people who were infected by epidemic disorders, or who died thereof; or to make dresses of them for children?
A. No; it might cause an entire loss of health, and, perhaps, life.