Hygiene for the Worker: 1912 guide to being a sweet-smelling prole

Meg sez, "I just found a copy of one of my favorite used-book finds ever, 1912's Hygiene for the Worker, on the Internet Archive. It's wonderful in so many ways. The illustrations are simultaneously delightful and creepy, the language is charmingly outdated, and the lessons in the book attempt to create a race of scrubbed-clean, milk-drinking super employees who spend their vacations at home 'laying up a greater store of health and energy than the young people who come back tired and weary from having too good a time at the mountains and other regular summer resorts.'"
Hair. Most boys and girls, ordinarily, do not value or pay sufficient attention to the little things that go to make up a good appearance.

Take the hair, for instance. If you want to make a good impression, don't apply for a position with your scalp and hair so unclean as to be offensive.

It has now become the rule, in certain large offices, to draw the line against the girls and young women whose hair is fantastically arranged in the extreme of style. Elaborate head dressings suggest to the employer a certain vanity, self-consciousness, and frivolity that render a girl unable to put her mind seriously upon her work.

Clothing. Here also should be mentioned the impro- priety of wearing, during business, clothing that seems suitable only for evening or home use. The type of waist known as the lingerie is one that the business girl should not wear in the office. It is neither sensible nor dignified. Nor is it an economy, for on account of its sheerness it requires greater care and expense in laundering ; hence, it is seldom washed as frequently as it should be. There is nothing more distasteful to the average business man than unclean finery.

Boys and girls both are inclined to run to extremes of style in their dress, usually preferring garments that are of the most up-to-date cut and shape to those of more modest appear- ance, which are generally found to be made better and of more enduring materials. This is equally true of hats and shoes. An employer will probably notice whether you are wearing elaborately cut and high-heeled shoes, run down, unbrushed, and with broken laces, or whether your feet are shod in sensible, well-fitting shoes, kept clean and neat.

Hygiene for the worker ([c1912]) (Thanks, Meg!)


  1. p.172 “The hygiene manager of a modern factory or works will take into account only modern, scientific understandings of Female Biology. As a result, retiring rooms should be made available, where employees afflicted by The Curse during working hours can immure themselves. Such rooms should be equipt with a bell or horn, so inmates can signal the hygiene manager or his deputy, so they may signal a cab or ambulance to remove her from the workplace.”

  2. Honestly, I think every company should have a small office with daybed so anyone who feels quite unwell can rest there until a taxi or a friend (or an ambulance) comes to pick them up.

    Whether it’s “the Curse” (dum dum DUUUUM), acute migraine, influenza, or whatever, someplace quiet to lie down, lights optionally dimmed, would be appreciated. Also handy for lunchtime power naps.

    Spare office space being what it is of course, it would be promptly turned into a multipurpose “meditation, prayer, yoga, break, and meeting room, with daybed” and you’d have to book three days in advance to get 15 minutes kip in.

  3. (Not to say that the original idea of “OMG she’s spotting quick toss her out” wasn’t ridiculous, but there’s the kernel of a good idea lurking around it)

  4. NB: #2 was a gag. Although I wouldn’t be surprised if that was a common attitude back then.

    #3, #4: I agree about the daybed idea.

    I have my own personal retiring room . . . my Civic. Where I nap during my lunch break.

  5. Mankind has always been grungy and filthy. And remember, the English had only recently discovered bathing. Many considered the very idea of immersing yourself in hot water and scrubbing with soap bizarre if not our right insane.

  6. 1912? so only the well to do bathed every week? Working people owned one suit of clothes, hot water came by the kettle off the wood stove, soap was lye, towels coarse as emery, houses largely unheated, privies in the backyard, cheap perfume substituted for absence of skin bacteria, leisure time belonged to the church, no employment standards existed, antibiotics were a dream and no internet? Ah, the good old days.

  7. I find the illustration a little creepy — the woman is in the foreground, it seems, but if the man were standing, he would be twice as tall as she looks.

  8. Being somewhat bored tonight, I actually read about 100 pages of this thing. The advice in it actually doesn’t age too badly: dress modestly, be clean and presentable, eat well, don’t drink and smoke, etc. All of this will help you maintain self confidence and dignity, which don’t have to be beneath you just because you work in a turn-of-the-century factory.

    Of course some of the advice is typical early century medical pseudo-science: the importance of cold fresh air, the idea that milk is essential to your health, that the wrong foods will have dramatic effects on your disposition, nasal douching, etc.

    Some of the things it has to point out are kind of shocking by modern standards: that shared workplace drinking cups are unsanitary, for example? Seriously? There was a time when that *wasn’t* considered the case?

    That said, some of it is downright progressive: it mentions labour laws and implies that workers have a right to expect safe working conditions. Much emphasis is placed on the importance of guarding moving parts on machinery, it actually suggests that you bring up safety concerns with management, and that you find other work if you feel things are unsafe.

    The whole thing has an interesting undercurrent of puritan morality to it, suggesting leisure activities that will grow you as a person while warning against the evils of crude motion pictures and dance halls at which drink is served. It’s not unsound advice, but it is a little condascending (probably even by the standards of the day) and represents a fairly narrow view of the world… the kind of naive optimism that the proles should seek to better themselves by attending performances of the classic plays and operas. Maybe when they’re done they can attend a Chautauqua event for their vacation.

    Cool find, and a good way to waste an hour or so.

  9. “There was a time when that *wasn’t* considered the case?

    Prior to the water fountain it was common to drink water from a common dipper hung from a chain next to a bucket. It was a common vector for TB. The inventor of the drinking fountain was partly inspired by the death of his father to typhoid fever and by the illness he saw while working as a supervisor in a factory.

    Lot of things we think of as common sense had to be learned the hard way.

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