Many scholars argue that an essential characteristic of the modern condition is a distinct separation between humans and nature, body and environment, and in buildings, a separation between “indoors” and “outdoors.” Within this framework, my research traces complex intersections between ideas about health and indoor environments in urban buildings in New York City between 1850 and 1930, particularly in terms of the perceived qualities of air contained by what was becoming increasingly air-tight construction. These historical discourses of air can tell us something about how and where various groups constructed boundaries, reflecting back on how they imagined their homes and their workplaces as natural or artificial, as supports or detriments to their bodily health, and as embedded in or isolated from the surrounding urban environment.
Although my work is still in a developmental stage, research with materials in Consortium collections along with other sources revealed that medical authorities in the nineteenth and early twentieth century defined problems of indoor environments in different terms than those of outdoor, urban environments. This differentiation has not been emphasized by past historians, who typically include building ventilation in general narratives of the sanitary movement’s efforts to fight epidemic diseases with large-scale infrastructure projects in the nineteenth century. Yet close attention to medical discourses revealed that physicians—and the companies and engineers who repeatedly cited them—more often discussed indoor air in terms of the precise physiological functions of respiration and the chronic disease of consumption (tuberculosis) rather than in terms of general urban “filth” and acute diseases such as cholera and yellow fever. This specific disease connection is significant because it links issues of indoor ventilation to the rapidly expanding life insurance industry, whose primary concern in this period was the eradication of consumption. These findings suggest new narratives regarding the entities that shape, directly or indirectly, choices about buildings and building environmental systems.
From the standpoint of technological and commercial development, research with trade catalogs and company literature at Consortium institutions evoked a picture of two competing approaches to heating and ventilating large buildings in this period, one approach that left heating and ventilating uncoupled, and another that merged the two into a single technological system. From the 1850s to the 1880s, medical authorities disagreed about whether the former approach, which paired radiators with a wide variety of window-based ventilators, or the latter, which relied on large fans to deliver pre-heated air from a central location, provided a healthier indoor environment, but by the 1890s, specialists, with emerging knowledge about germ transmission of disease, favored fan-driven systems. They reasoned that the identification of the tuberculosis bacillus did not reduce the need for copious air, but rather strengthened the requirement for a guaranteed change of air, something a coupled system delivered most effectively. Financial incentives from nascent electric companies also made these preferred fan-driven systems more economically feasible. Understanding this coupled technology’s contingent path of ascent is key, not only because it is now the dominant building environmental technology in most American buildings, but also because it is markedly inefficient one, as many contemporary engineering scholars observe.
My Consortium Research Fellowship supported work at three institutions: the Hagley Museum and Library, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, and the New York Academy of Medicine. Research in the Hagley’s library and archives afforded time with early trade catalogs for various heating and ventilating equipment manufacturers, representing both “active” modes of environmental management (furnaces, fans, boilers, radiators, and accessories) and “passive” modes (windows, roof ventilators, and other materials comprising the “building envelope”). Time at the Hagley also allowed me to explore the collection of the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society (PSFS), which sponsored one of the earliest fully air-conditioned high-rise buildings in the United States, designed in the late 1920s and completed in 1932. The PSFS materials provided critical insight into the company’s reasoning regarding the selection of the new centralized air-conditioning technology over an established window-based ventilation system. A surprising element in this decision-making process was the deeply embedded role of the builder and general contractor, the George A. Fuller Company.
The Smithsonian offered access to its incredible trade literature collection, which has a particular strength in building technologies, and the Warshaw collection of business ephemera, which includes trade catalogs and advertisements for smaller scale building elements, such as non-mechanical window ventilators, awnings, weather-stripping systems, and a wide range of popular health-improvement literature. The trade literature collection was particularly useful for understanding how large and small companies created narratives for their products over time, how they positioned themselves in a particular fields, who they saw as competition, and the expertise and literature they pointed to for substantiation of their claims.
My research at the New York Academy of Medicine focused on pamphlets and guides published by life insurance companies, medical consultants to these companies, and tuberculosis prevention organizations. In particular, I wanted to understand how these companies and organizations perceived a patient’s or policy-holder’s work or home environment in terms of health outcomes or insurability. Especially in guidance to medical examiners, insurance companies and experts varied in their perspectives over time, and sometimes dramatically so. In one case, a medical consultant in an 1898 publication asserted that knowledge of the conditions of an applicant’s residence was not particularly critical, but by 1903 the same consultant advised that especially in the case tuberculosis, such knowledge was “of vital importance.”
The Consortium Research Fellowship was valuable to my project not only for its provision of access to rare and unique collections, but also for its facilitation of dialogue with other scholars and with the collections’ archivists and librarians, all of which invariably lead to new connections and resources.