Sanitizing Style: a new exhibition at the Osler Library

No longer with a trailing skirt

           She sweeps the sidewalks bare.

Collecting germs, collecting dirt,

              All swaddled up for fair.

The cities now hire men adept

           At sweeping what those long skirts swept.

                                                               (From The Toronto Star, Oct. 9, 1925)

By the time of the publication of these lines, germ theory had pervaded every aspect of daily life in the Western world. Discovered in the latter half of the19th century, the theory, elaborated by scientists such as Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch, led to numerous changes in everyday living. A new exhibition at the Osler Library highlights one such example. Following the discovery of the Tuberculosis baterium, public health advocates rallied to create treatment and prevention programmes, including public health campaigns and anti-spitting legislation. They recognized the danger posed by tuberculosis-infected sputum on the streets swept up by the trailing skirts that fashionable women of the day favoured. Curated by Cynthia Tang, with rare books specialist Anna Dysert and costume curator Catherine Bradley, this exhibition explores the legitimacy that germ theory lent to the late 19th century movement to reform women’s dress, bringing together books, images, artifacts, and clothing pieces from collections across McGill.

The exhibition Sanitizing Style: Germ Theory and Fashion at the Turn of the Century is on now at the Osler Library through November 2015. Stay tuned for a curator’s talk and exhibition walkthrough to be scheduled for October!


“Nous portons tous des microbes”

World Tuberculosis Day fell yesterday, March 24th. The choice of date commemorates the day Dr. Robert Koch announced his discovery of the TB bacillus, Mycobacterium tuberculosis. In 1882, the year of Koch’s announcement, TB was responsible for seven million deaths.

Cracher à terre est un Danger. From the Osler Library Prints Collection.

Cracher à terre est un Danger. From the Osler Library Prints Collection.

This “image d’Épinal” is part of a series called “Propagande pour l’hygiène publique.” It was part of a wide campaign in the first half of the 20th century to sensitize the French public to tuberculosis and other infectious diseases, infant mortality, and alcoholism: the inevitable scourges that decimate humanity. “Images d’Épinal” were popular prints that illustrated traditional or country life. In this example, entitled “Cracher à terre est un Danger (Spitting on the ground is a danger),” a young instructor named Monsieur Ledoux visits a country home, where he is alarmed to see the sick grandfather spitting on the floor. He explains that tuberculosis germs are found in saliva and can be easily be transmitted through the air, as when the young wife sweeps the floors and sends up microbe-filled dust.

Monsieur Ledoux’s three crucial pieces of advice? Don’t sweep the floor when it’s dry, make sure people don’t spit on the floor, and give pocket spitoons to sick people.



Robert Koch and Tuberculosis: Robert Koch’s famous lecture. December, 2003.

Albert Calmette. La propagande pour l’hygiene sociale par le cinematographe. L’art à l’école. Bulletin de la Société Française de l’art à l’école, 78 (1922): 81-82.