For most of English history, germs were not understood. Bathing was relatively infrequent. Horse and human waste lay in the streets. Plagues abounded. Infant mortality was high and child deaths not uncommon. The generally accepted belief was that God chose who lived or died, and that there was nothing much parents could do.
One of the most important inventions of the Victorian age was indoor plumbing. Middle and upper class homes began to be built with dedicated rooms for bathing and toileting, and chamber pots were gradually replaced with toilets. The early versions contained risks of their own; sewer gasses could travel up the commode, mix with the leaking fumes from the gas power lines, and explode on some occasions.
Still, the innovation of heated water carried by pipes rather than servants or selves, combined with a growing understanding of the germ theory of disease, led to entirely new schools of thought on child rearing. Germ theory meant there was something parents could do about early childhood mortality. Almost immediately this was refashioned into blame for mothers who lost their children.
Purity in every sense became the ascribed role of mothers. Moral and physical cleanliness became inextricably linked ideas. Even today if Hollywood wants to convey immorality, it will set the scene in a dirty alleyway or show a bug running across things. Keeping a clean home meant washing everything down with caustic solvents, many of them quite poisonous and unsafe.
It took less than a generation to transition from the idea that God chose which babies survived to the notion that mothers determined their babies’ fates by virtue of their purity. Fathers were never held to this standard in the same way. Although there was a world of non germ threats to child health – from the city smog of the Industrial Revolution factories to the lead paint on children’s toys – mothers bore the brunt of responsibility and blame for poor outcomes.
In much of the world today clean running water, and sewer services to remove waste, are not available to all. Diseases related to poor hygiene and associated germs still exist, and infant and child mortality rates are predictably high in such places. I want the whole world to have the means to prevent the spread of germs. I don’t want us exporting British or American style mother blame as well.
Clean water saves lives. More babies reach and survive childhood when they have reliable access to it. We should do all we can to end plagues and diseases caused by limited access to good hygiene. We should also do what we can to remember the myriad factors beyond a mother’s control, and to remember the existence of fathers and their shared responsibility for trying to ensure good outcomes. The innovation of indoor plumbing doesn’t have to come hand in hand with centuries old sexism.