How hygiene helped cities fight pandemics

As the world seeks to protect itself from the Covid-19 pandemic, a look back at the history of necessary urban sanitation policy provides essential perspective.

The city, especially in the 19th century, is the place par excellence of dirtiness, home to epidemics. The city is extremely dirty. There are few sewers.

The Romans had invented sewers, inspired by the Etruscans, like the cloaca maxima in Rome. The Romans had a good control of water, thanks to the aqueducts, and the dirty water was evacuated by this sewer system. The same is true in some of the large French cities built by the Romans, such as Paris, Lyon and Nîmes.

However, the sewers were abandoned, blocked, after the barbarian invasions. There are no more sewers in French cities from the Middle Ages. In the Middle Ages, open sewers were used. Medieval streets were built on two slopes with a V-shaped gutter in the middle to allow water to drain away. The expression “hold the top of the pavement” comes from the fact that the people had to walk to the bottom, in the mud, while the nobles were on top. Rain and storms were used to remove this waste, or certain municipal employees were responsible for collecting this waste, about once a week. The garbage was either thrown out the window, or deposited down the street.

This stagnant water is a breeding ground for disease. Some progress was made in medieval cities.

From the 1850s onwards, especially the hygienists began to alert the municipalities. The State had to intervene to clean up the cities and reduce these epidemics. Politicians also had an interest in cleaning up these cities, because they were a reflection of modernity and power.

Changes in the Cities

This interest of the State in the cities is slow to take hold. In the cities, water is still quite scarce.

In Honoré de Balzac’s La Peau de chagrin, the hero fetches the water he needs by himself: on average, one jump per day. In the villages, one has to go far to fetch water.

The State starts to take an interest in this matter because of an epidemic: cholera. Cholera appeared in France in 1832, and affected the big cities. This disease is caused by bacteria: after three days of incubation, diarrhea and vomiting, dehydration, the body takes a yellow color, and death occurs after one or two days. Cholera is transmitted by food, but also by dirty water. To avoid being infected, it is necessary to wash your hands very frequently, which is not the case at that time. Eighteen thousand deaths in Paris in the space of a few months.

Within five years of this epidemic, the municipality of the city of Paris developed the sewers: by rehabilitating the old Roman sewers, and by creating new ones. Public baths were opened. In 1835, it was decided that each district would have its own free public bath. Despite this opening, mentalities took time to change.

The average Parisian took three to five baths a year.

The elites, such as the nobility and the bourgeoisie, bathed much more and developed a system of home bathing. The home bath includes a barrel, containing heated water. The hot water is brought in, raised, and for a few hours the elites bathe in it.

In the 1850s, the population of the cities exploded. Lille or Saint-Étienne doubled their population between 1850 and 1870. This influx of population had to be managed, which created social problems. There was little housing available, so the new arrivals settled in shanty towns on the outskirts. These poor living conditions worried the state, because they were conducive to revolutions.

At that time, the streets are particularly narrow. To prevent the armies from passing, barricades were set up. The State then decided to create large streets. The prefect Haussmann organized great works under the Second Empire. The municipality of Paris borrowed from banks. Napoleon III admired England, and in particular London. Three logic emerges:

  1. Drive out the dangerous classes, put them in the outskirts of the city.
  2. Hygienic measures, to restrict diseases.
  3. Economic logic: building buildings to create jobs.

Paris is essentially medieval, the first sidewalk dates from 1782. Haussmann razed entire neighborhoods in the city center and created avenues. The avenue is wide so that the army can pass, and is lined with five-story buildings with attics: on the second floor the bourgeois apartments, and the higher the floor, the poorer it is.

Haussmann also installed train stations, a sign of modernity: Gare du Nord in the early 1860s. He also insisted on opening up green spaces: the Buttes-Chaumont park, for example. Haussmann developed the sewer system. The streets were built with cobblestones and gutters. Finally, running water was installed in the majority of homes. There was no question of a bathroom, but rather a room with a sink, with the toilets remaining common on the landing. The city is therefore airy and more modern thanks to water and gas.

The limits to this work:

  1. A first limit concerns malaria. The epidemic spread during these works.
  2. A second limitation is that not all neighborhoods are redeveloped, such as the Marais neighborhood.

In Lyon, Jean-Claude VAISSE also launched major works. He developed a sewage system to clean the city and drilled large avenues, such as the Avenue Impériale, which became the rue de la République, or the Parc de la Tête d’or. The water treatment system was also invented in Lyon.

Sanitary improvement of the city

The quantity of water distributed per capita was 7.5 liters per day in 1840, compared to 114 liters in 1873 (figures including industrial use of water).

Bathrooms were built in the apartments. The bourgeois bathroom was close to the bedroom, in order to maintain the couple’s privacy. The servants were not allowed to enter. The bathroom is also a way to distinguish oneself from the people and to show one’s social superiority.

In the countryside, the State encouraged the communes by granting them a credit to build public baths in the villages, fountains and wash houses. These are always public baths.
In Haussmannian buildings, water was added to the fifth floor, the workers’ floor, around 1865–1870.

A change occurred in the mentality of the workers: they had to be clean after work. In addition to changing their shirts, they had to wash after work.

From 1870 onwards, it was noticed that there were micro-organisms, microbes, that could not be seen. Whereas before there was only visible cleanliness (removing dirt, odors), there is now an invisible cleanliness.

New standards of hygiene are created. The furniture which was in contact with water was made of wood: from now on new materials are used, like tiles, earthenware. Hygiene products were introduced.

The teeth: The toothbrush was discovered under Louis XV, thanks to a traveler. The toothbrush, used then by the elites, like Napoleon, is democratized only at the very end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.

The hair: cottons are soaked with ether, alcohol. Either the hair is ironed or with soap. These uses are bad for the hair. Men used to use macassar oil to hold the hair back. A new product, from Anglettere, is used later: the shampoo. The modern shampoo appears only in 1934.

In 1884, Eugène Poubelle ordered that waste, which had previously been thrown away at the bottom of buildings, is put into containers. These containers are brought to the outskirts of the city, in dumps.

From the 1880s onwards, the State exercised greater control through the school system. The elementary gestures of hygiene are inculcated.

In 1930, only 23% of French rural communities had a drinking water distribution network at home. The countryside was therefore behind.

In spite of all these changes, an old vision of cleanliness persisted. For example, the idea of airing out interiors was not established until the 20th century. In rural areas, animals and people live in the same premises for two advantages: the warmth of the animals, and the proximity of the animals which would be soothing and healing.